109. Because of you

In which there is a digging in of heels, and a plan to escape.

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Laura

At least Matt didn’t seem to be bearing a grudge against his mum. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and then Carol was in the doorway.

‘Hello, Laura. Oh, have you just got them to sleep? I’ll be quiet.’

Her voice was low, and neither Josh in his cot nor Ella on my shoulder stirred.

‘Don’t worry, they’re pretty robust. Sometimes I think they take after Matt in the sleeping department, they sleep through the loudest noises. Then one of us coughs, and it’s baby Armageddon.’

‘Well, it’s true Matthew’s always liked his sleep.’

‘I think ‘like’ is an understatement. If it was an Olympic sport he’d have fifty-seven gold medals. Would you like a cuddle with Ella? Come and sit on the sofa.’

Carol couldn’t resist, and she sat down next to me as I passed the sleeping Ella over to her. Her arthritic hands found it hard to hold them comfortably, and she always worried about dropping them when she was standing up, but sitting down was easier, and I gave her as much opportunity to hold her grandchildren as I could. She looked down at Ella for a while, then up at me, speaking in the quiet tone she had used since coming into the room.

‘Did you hear any of what I was saying to Matthew?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I was listening, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh no, dear, I’m glad. I won’t say anything now, but I’d like to call you tomorrow, while he’s at work, if I may. I’m worried about all this.’

‘Oh Carol, of course. Ring me anytime.’

Matt

The voices from upstairs made me wonder if Lau and Mum were hatching some plot between them, so I quickly cut some slices of cake and made some more tea, put it all on a tray and hurried up the stairs. Their voices were too low for me to hear what they were saying, but by the time I got into the room, they had stopped speaking.

Laura

Any further conversation was curtailed by the sound of Matt’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He came into the room with a tray with more tea and cake on it.

‘Seconds for me and Mum, firsts for Lau. This cake is superb, Lau.’

‘What a surprise. Did Beth ever make a cake that wasn’t?’

‘Ha ha, not that I can remember. It would have made News at Ten, caused the global cake markets to crash. Babies snoozing? Lazy bastards.’

‘Matt!’

Matt

OK, I was trying to watch my language around them, but seriously? All the bloody time? Give me a day off, for fuck’s sake.

‘Oh, sorry, Lau, but that’s not really a bad one, is it?’

‘Every little one adds up, dear.’

Yeah, there was definitely some kind of womanly bonding going on.

‘Yes, Mum. Just can’t get a break round here at the moment. Might have to lock myself in the bathroom and say all the rude words I can think of.’

‘That might take you a while, flower. Do you want to stay for dinner, Carol?’

‘Oh, no dear, thank you for asking though. Rose is going to call round when she’s ready to go. She’ll not be long, she spent the day with Declan and Amy, and when she got home she realised she’d still got Charlie’s giraffe in her bag, so she just rang to see if I wanted a little jaunt.’

‘Oh no, not Gigi! Disaster, good job she noticed before bedtime.’

‘Yes, it is. But she said she wasn’t going to be long.’

‘Yeah, right, like Rose ever just popped round to anyone’s, let alone when Charlie and Tom are there, ripe for a good grannying.’

‘Well, we’ll see. If my tummy rumbles too loudly, I may have to take you up on your offer.’

‘You’re always welcome, Carol.’

We were all being jolly and happy and avoiding the issue, which was fine by me, that was just the way I wanted it to stay, everybody avoiding saying anything about anything.

The doorbell rang, and I went downstairs to let Rose in. Even she was trying to get in on the act, and started in straight away.

‘Hello Matt. What have you been up to with that brother of yours?’

I totally ignored the question, kissed her on the cheek.

‘Hi Rose, Mum’s just coming, she’s all ready for you.’

Laura

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, then, dear.’

‘Thanks, Carol, I’d like to chat about it.’

‘They’ll sort it out, I’m sure, but they might need a few nudges. Bye bye you beautiful girl.’

This last was to Ella, who had opened her eyes and given her granny a huge grin.

Matt

Lau and I had a quiet evening, once the babies were in bed. I was wondering how I was going to keep everyone at arm’s length while I got my head around things, and Lau would have been worrying about me as well as worrying about whether or not she was pregnant and worrying about how she was going to fit everything in that she needed to do tomorrow.

Laura

Matt and I spent the rest of the evening lost in our own thoughts. I suspected Matt was thinking about what his mum had said. He hated being told what to do, but once he’d got past his initial annoyance, he sometimes listened in retrospect. I was worried about him, and also at the back of my mind was the constant ‘what if I’m pregnant’ niggle, which just wouldn’t go away however much I tried to distract myself. What if I was pregnant? I was going to need everyone in the family, or I really would go under.

Matt

My mind wandered over what Mum had said. I didn’t know how she could have got it so completely wrong. Jay and I had rubbed along together OK over the last few years, but before I was ill the first time we hadn’t been close, and it seemed like Jay preferred it that way. I couldn’t begin to imagine him being jealous of me. It was laughable; he had always made it clear that he valued strength and athleticism over intelligence and wit, and nothing seemed to have changed in that respect.

Lau eventually decided to go to bed. I wasn’t tired, and didn’t want to spend hours tossing and turning.

‘Do you mind if I don’t come up just yet?’

‘Course not, flower. You didn’t get up till the crack of lunch anyway. Wake me up when you get in, if I’m not with the babies.’

‘Why?’

‘Just want to make sure I give you a huge cuddle before we go to sleep.’

And believe it or not, all I wanted was a huge cuddle. This morning’s antics had been awesome, but apart from knowing it would freak Lau right out to try anything now, I just wanted her to fold me up and show me how much she loved me and believed in me.

‘Oh Lau, sounds bloody perfect. Might not be that long after all, then.’

‘See you later, my love.’

Laura

The next morning Matt left for work, to my eyes more reluctantly than usual. He didn’t have specific hours, and was still officially part time, usually going in mid-morning, but today he hung around finding things to do that didn’t really need doing. I understood his reluctance, it would be hard to go back somewhere you’d thought you had a chance of escaping, but then feeling like you may never be able to leave. I didn’t know how to help him, and it frustrated me.

Matt

The next morning I took ages getting ready for work. My feet felt like lead; it was as if I’d seen the escape route but had discovered at the last minute it had been blocked off. The thought of going back to GreenScreen, not just today, but every day for the foreseeable, was seeming less and less attractive.

Laura

Not long after Matt left, I had a text from Beth.

‘How’s Matty?’

‘Same. Saw Carol yesterday. No change.’

‘Did she say what she thinks?’

‘Yeh, but M not listening.’

‘Need 2b devious.’

‘Really? Not sure. Wot u thinking?’

‘Use Cal. Science homework. Get him here?’

‘Worth a try, but think he’ll see thru it.’

‘Maybe. Step 1 tho. Will txt him now.’

A bit later the same morning, I had a text from Amy.

‘Wot’s going on w Jay n Matt? Rose said big fall out?’

‘Yeh, J said some stuff, upset M.’

‘Really? Wot he say?’

‘Long story. Fancy coming round?’

‘Gr8. Gimme a minute or 60 to get C & T ready. Cu soon.’

Matt

Once I was there it was business as usual, and I managed to drag my mood off the floor with some banter and some doughnuts, but as I looked ahead to the projects and meetings that were in store over the coming months, I couldn’t help feeling my heart sinking. I’d done it all before, I was bored with it.

Half way through the morning, Beth started with the texting. She always thinks she’s being subtle, but she’s as transparent as glass.

‘Matty, ru around 2nite? Cal cld do with help, science homework.’

‘Yeh, sure, get him 2 FaceTime me.’

‘Might need hands on?’

‘Bring him round then.’

And then radio silence was resumed while Beth rethought her strategy.

My day got worse when Phil asked me to talk to one of the new employees about her work on a project. As in tell her if she didn’t pull her socks up she was history. Fuck I hated that shit, it wasn’t the way I did things, but now that I was more of a manager than a team leader, and didn’t just have my own team to do with as I wished, I was more constrained by what Phil wanted me to do. She had been warned before, and now I had to get all heavy on her arse.

Laura

Amy had just left, after a big catch up where I filled her in on what had happened with Matt and Jay, when I had a call from Carol.

‘Hi Carol.’

‘Hello, dear. Do you have time to talk?’

‘Yes, of course. I might have to desert you at any time for a small crying person, but at the moment they’re happy in their baby seats. We were just having a game of peekaboo.’

‘Oh that’s good. I’m glad you’re getting a bit of peace.’

‘Amy’s just been here with Charlie and Tom. Part of me thinks I’m better off having my two both together. She’s really got her hands full with hers, especially now Charlie’s walking.’

‘Maybe wait until you’ve got two toddlers before thinking you’ve got it easier, dear.’

‘Yes, you could be right.’

‘Now, Laura, I just wanted to talk to you about this silly argument. You were there, weren’t you? What exactly did Jameson say?’

‘Oh, I’m not sure I can remember the exact words. There was this talk about a job at Raiders, Matt asked Jay for a number of someone to talk to about it, Jay wouldn’t give it to him, at first because he didn’t think he should be disturbed on a Sunday, then he ended up saying he didn’t think Matt should go for the job because it would be awkward when Matt messed about and flirted. Matt got upset, told Jay he wouldn’t go for the job, and that was kind of it.’

‘Hm, that’s about what Beth said. Laura, they haven’t argued like this for a long time. When Matthew was ill and Jameson moved up to Stafford, Matthew was overwhelmed. I won’t say they haven’t had a cross word since, because they’re so different, they often have different opinions, but they’ve been much closer than they were before.’

‘I’ve tried reminding Matt about what Jay did for him. He’s not exactly open to thinking about it at the moment.’

‘No. I think all this has stirred up a bit of deep emotion for both of them. Before Matthew was diagnosed with MS, he and Jameson didn’t see each other very much. Jameson never really understood Matthew when they were younger; he was such a physical boy, always out playing football or rugby, and he used to tease Matthew terribly because he always had his head stuck in a book or a knew how to do his sums. Matthew looked up to his brother, and the teasing hurt him, although he tried not to show it. He tried so hard to match Jameson physically, but he just never had the build for it, or the aptitude for sport. I suppose he’s more like me, whereas Jameson is more like his father. When they got older they lived in different worlds – Jameson with his rugby and Matthew with his computers. They got on well enough when they met up, but it didn’t happen that often. I don’t think Jameson realised how much he loved Matthew until he nearly died, and I don’t think Matthew realises how scared Jameson was, how upset he was, how much soul-searching he did while Matthew was in hospital.’

‘So what do you think happened on Saturday?’

‘Well, it’s just a guess, but I don’t think they ever resolved their jealousies. Jameson knows he’s not as clever as Matthew, and it grates with him. Matthew has always tried to be as strong and tough as Jameson, but he falls short. I think when their two worlds are separate, they get on just fine. Being with the family is fine too, there’s a lot of common ground. But Jameson seeing Matthew becoming part of his sport world, the world where he knows a lot, and where Matthew has the potential to show him up and know more about something, that would threaten Jameson’s security. I don’t expect he even thought about it, he just reacted, a sort of automatic fighting response. That’s why Matthew has reacted so badly as well, it’s taken both of them back to when they were younger.’

‘Matt did say he felt like he was ten, when Jay teased him for knowing all the planets or something.’

‘Oh. That almost confirms it then, dear.’

‘Well it would explain it, Carol, but what on earth are we going to do about it?’

‘I don’t know if there’s a quick solution. I think these things take time. Jameson won’t even talk about it, not to me, not to Beth. I don’t expect Matthew’s much better.’

‘Not so as you’d notice. I suppose I’ll just keep plugging away. It’s exhausting, though. And the longer it goes on, the more stubborn both of them are going to get.’

‘Yes, the stubborn streak is another factor, I suppose. Perhaps we should get our heads together properly, you, me and Beth, and see what we can think up.’

‘Maybe we’ll be able to think of something. I’ll talk to Beth later.’

‘Alright dear. How are you coping with it all?’

‘Oh I’m alright. To be honest, Ella and Josh keep me so busy I’m just letting Matt get on with it to some extent.’

And I might be pregnant, so that was taking some of my worrying space away from Matt’s concerns, but I wasn’t going to be saying that to Carol right now.

‘That’s the best way, dear. You will call me if you want to talk about it, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, sure, and I’ll let you know what Beth says.’

The afternoon passed, my mum came over for a quick visit, then I started getting dinner ready, did more feeding, changing and washing, and the time flew by.

Matt

The employee bollocking didn’t go well. There was no gentle way of saying what I had to say, and she cried buckets, and I told her to go home and think about things. I didn’t know if she was going to come back, and a part of me was envious of her. Shit I needed to get out of there, it was seriously doing my bloody nut. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my office, writing up the disciplinary report and Googling jobs, wishing I wasn’t there. I sent a few links to my home email, then I looked up and it was time to go.

I hurried home, and shut the front door behind me, as if it was a portcullis I had just let down to protect us from marauding hordes.

‘Hey Lau. Come here and give me a cuddle, woman.’

Lau walked towards me with an eyebrow raised and did as she was told.

‘That’s better. Just needed someone to obey my every command. Bloody subordinates, don’t know their place half the time.’

‘Ah, poor Matt, have the underlings been rebelling again?’

‘Yeah. It doesn’t pay to be a democratic leader, they just take the piss. I had to bloody discipline someone today. Hated every bloody second.’

‘What, tell someone off?’

Lau knew I didn’t work like that, and she stroked my face sympathetically.

‘Yeah. They’d fucked up a contract, not for the first time. I’m usually more of a ‘let’s learn from our mistakes’ kind of guy, but Phil wanted to be hard-line about it, and so I had to do it. Made her cry.’

‘Oh, Matt. That’s terrible.’

‘Yeah. Still, now I’m home, in the arms of my bloody awesome wife, with, is that a waft of chicken casserole I smell? And freshly wiped baby bum? Hopefully not from the same source.’

‘Yes, it is a chicken casserole, and yes the babies are clean and tidy awaiting a kiss bestowed by their doting father.’

‘Whoa, you’ve been busy. Bet you haven’t made anyone cry, though.’

‘There have been some tears, although I’m not sure I can claim full responsibility for all of them. Mum was round earlier, she helped with the casserole, peeled some veg.’

‘She OK?’

I didn’t really want to get into any discussions Lau might have had with April. I was going to have to be careful what I talked about with anyone, to avoid being told what people thought vicariously.

‘Yeah, fine. Saw Amy earlier as well.’

This included Amy, but Lau seemed disinclined to tell me anything about it, so I assumed they’d had a good gossip about me and left it at that.

Laura

I left out my conversation with Carol, until I could think of how to tell Matt we’d been discussing him. He was bound to know we had been, but it irritated him when he found out about it.

Matt

‘I got a text from Beth this morning, she’s so obvious, some boll – er – rubbish about helping Cal with his science homework. Thinks she’s going to trick me into going round there. I said if Cal needs help he can FaceTime me, or she can bring him here.’

Laura

‘Oh Matt.’

I didn’t say any more, just gave him a sympathetic look and squeezed him tight. This was going to affect the whole family until it was resolved. Cal and Iz would miss Matt a lot, and as I thought about it, I realised that Dec would find it hard to know who to support. It was something else to throw into the mix, but not right now, when Matt was still refusing to communicate about it.

Matt

I didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to remain supportive but silent, Lau always had an opinion, but I appreciated the effort so far.

‘Yeah, well. OK, babies to kiss, first job on the old man’s to do list.’

So we had a bit of baby time, both of us chatting to them, saying nursery rhymes, Lau singing, watching them wriggle and giggle, seeing them smile. When they were behaving themselves, they were the best therapy.

Laura

I watched as Matt bent down to first Josh and then Ella, loving as always to see them smile and wriggle as he cuddled them. Matt always chatted to both of them about all sorts of things – football, food, family – as if they understood everything he said, and he had their complete attention.

He sat down, Ella on his knee, as I scooped up Josh and sat next to them and we spent some time bouncing babies and talking to them. Both of them were developing distinct personalities. Josh was more laid back, and would usually wait patiently for his more assertive sister to have her needs met. Josh would gaze intensely into my eyes while he fed, focussed entirely on me, whereas Ella would look around, everything distracting her. I found myself wondering how their different characters would develop as they grew up, and whether they would argue like Matt and Jay had. It almost brought tears to my eyes to imagine them not being as close as they were – they reached out to each other constantly, and looked at each other when they were in their separate beds, their daily cycles seemingly linked as well. I needed to say something to Matt.

‘Your mum rang me today.’

Matt

I so didn’t want to talk about this.

‘Oh yeah?’

‘She’s quite upset about this thing with Jay.’

I didn’t want Mum and Lau talking about me when I wasn’t there. I didn’t want them doing it when I was there either. Lau knew that, she knew how I felt about ‘being discussed’.

‘It’s nothing to do with her.’

‘She’s your mum. She’s just worried.’

‘Had a good gossip, did you?’

I couldn’t help it, the sarcastic tone. I was pissed off.

Laura

‘Hey, don’t take it out on me. I was thinking, just now, what if Josh and Ella fall out when they’re older? I’d be destroyed.’

Maybe if Matt could see it from a parent’s point of view, it might give him a different perspective.

Matt

She was trying to make me see it from someone else’s point of view, but I wanted to see it from my own. I wasn’t going to talk to her about it, not now. Maybe not ever.

‘Leave it, Lau. So, Josh, Spurs have got a Monday night game with Sunderland, shall we watch it together?’

Laura

And that was the end of that conversation, although I hoped Matt might at least think about it.

Matt

After dinner I started to watch the football while Lau did an evening feed. As she was starting to get them ready to go to bed, Dec’s ring tone pinged on my phone. I’d been expecting to hear from him all day, but he’d shown remarkable restraint, until now.

‘Seriously? Not speaking to Jay? How old ru again?’

I could just see it all happening, the family network springing into action on Mission Matty. Beth had tried, so it was Dec’s turn next, and then when he had no joy it would be Mum, then they might get Nico to give it a go, and before long they would have all had a turn. Well good luck to them. It wasn’t going to work, because it was different this time; I had Lau.

Laura

He looked at his phone, then tossed it back onto the table with a sigh. It was so like when I first knew him, when he got so exasperated with people checking up on him.

‘Who was that?’

‘Dec. He’s wading in now. They can all just piss off and leave me alone.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing. Just talk.’

‘Oh. Say goodnight to Daddy, Ella.’

Matt kissed her gently and stroked her hair.

‘I’ll be back down for Josh in a minute.’

‘I can bring him up if you like.’

‘No, you watch the football, I won’t be long.’

Matt

While Lau was upstairs, the FaceTime tone went on my iPad. I nearly ignored it, but remembered my text conversation with Beth earlier, and relented, hoping it would be Cal rather than his mum. I pressed the button, and Cal appeared, to my relief and mild surprise. I’d thought it might just be a ruse to get me over there, but it seemed there had been some truth in it.

Laura

While I was upstairs I heard the FaceTime tone go on Matt’s iPad. I thought he might ignore it, but heard:

Matt

‘Hey Cal.’

‘Mum said you’d help me with my science homework?’

‘Sure, mate. What is it?’

‘Physics.’

‘OK, what have you got to do?’

Laura

As Matt continued talking to Cal, I relaxed a little. Matt wasn’t so angry that he wouldn’t talk to anyone, then. He never liked letting Cal down, but the way he’d been the last couple of days, I’d wondered if he would really let his anger encompass all of Jay’s family, not just Jay. If he was talking to Cal, there was some hope. Maybe Beth had been more perceptive than I’d thought.

Matt

Helping Cal diverted me for a while, although it meant I missed the football, but I never really minded with Cal. He could be a grouchy little git sometimes, but once you got him out of his shell, he was really interested in things, and once he understood something, this look came over his face, as if he’d just been give the key to a magic door, and it was awesome. It made me realise why teaching is appealing to some people.

It didn’t take that long to help Cal, although while I was talking to him I had two more texts from Dec, which I ignored until I’d finished Facetiming. Once I’d said goodbye to Cal, I picked up my phone.

‘Seriously, Matt. Get over it.’

‘U know what happens when u go all silent. I’ll be round in a few.’

I just wasn’t having any of it. Dec was bound to be siding with Jay, and I didn’t need the Summers treatment, hadn’t since I’d found Lau. She was my rock, my safe place, my confessional.

‘The whole lot of you can just fuck right off. Don’t need any of you. Stay the fuck out of it.’

Laura

When I came back downstairs, Matt had finished his FaceTime and was texting. He didn’t look up at me, his body language telling me he didn’t want to talk about who or what he was texting. When I went down after putting Josh to bed, he was watching the football again. He looked up and held his arm out, patting the seat beside him. I sat beside him as he put his arm round me, and rested my head on his shoulder as he watched the football.

‘It’s nearly finished, Lau.’ He indicated the football match.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll just sit here and veg for a bit.’

I wasn’t vegging, I was racking my brains for ways of getting Matt to talk, and coming up with nothing. Matt was so obstinate that the longer it went on, the more it was just going to be ‘a thing’ that had no reason behind it, but was just absorbed into Matt’s way of being. That couldn’t happen, it would be devastating to Matt and his whole family. I sat, leaning up against Matt, thinking hard. When the doorbell rang, it made me jump. Matt grunted.

Matt

I knew who it would be. Summers, party of one, eager for a fun all-nighter.

‘Just leave it.’

‘Why?’

I’d told Lau before about our ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks, but I don’t think she’d completely got it.

‘It’ll be Dec, he’s just texted.’

‘So why are we ignoring it?’

She pushed herself to her feet to go and answer the door, but I caught her hand and pulled her back to the sofa, more roughly than I’d intended in my desperation not to let Dec in. Yeah, thinking about it now, maybe I was scared about what he was going to make me face if he got in, but at the time I was just angry and defiant.

‘No, Lau.’

Laura

I swung round to face him, annoyed at his tone of voice and at being manhandled.

‘Hey. It’s my front door as well as yours. Don’t push me around.’

Matt had the decency to look ashamed.

Matt

I was ashamed of myself. I never got physical with people, least of all Lau. I really was desperate.

‘Sorry, Lau. I just don’t want to see anyone. Please?’

Lau looked at me, and must have seen something in my face that convinced her, as she agreed.

‘Alright, for now. But this can’t go on, Matt. I’m not cutting us off from your entire family so you don’t have to face people.’

The doorbell rang again, and my phone pinged. I ignored it. Then Lau’s phone went too. Oh the bastard was upping the stakes, thinking he could involve Lau in our little game.

Lau got to her feet again and headed to the hallway.

‘Matt, I’m going to answer the door. I won’t let him in, but he knows we’re here, he’ll just keep on until we answer, and he’ll wake the babies up.’

Well that was true. I sighed.

‘You’re right. But don’t let him persuade you.’

‘Hey, you don’t have dibs on stubbornness. Don’t worry.’

I heard Lau open the door. She can’t have opened it more than a centimetre, or Dec would have been in like Flynn and we wouldn’t have got rid of him for weeks.

Laura

I reached the door as the bell rang again, and opened it. Dec moved towards me, but stopped, looking confused, when I blocked his way.

‘Hi Dec. Sorry, Matt doesn’t want to talk to anyone.’

‘Oh. Yeah, heard that one before.’

Dec raised his voice so it would reach Matt in the living room.

‘Tell him I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than he is, I’ll keep going all night until he talks to me. I’ve done it before, more than once.’

‘Please don’t, Dec. I’m here, Matt will talk to me, we’ll be fine. He’ll talk to you another time, I’m sure, just don’t push it.’

Matt

Oh I loved her so much. She was loyal and good and everything I needed.

Laura

Dec frowned, then nodded. When he spoke again, it was at his normal volume.

‘Are you OK, Lau?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I hate this, I can’t take sides.’

‘I know.’

‘Call us if you need us.’

I nodded, throat closing with emotion as I closed the door. I sniffed and tried to wipe my eyes so Matt didn’t see. To cover it up, I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, but a wave of sadness washed over me and I started crying properly. I felt torn; I wanted to support Matt, but he needed his family, we all needed each other, and if things didn’t improve soon, it was going to tear us apart. Matt’s family were so closely entwined, that if one of them wasn’t there, they could all crumble. If I tried to push things, he was going to see me as against him too. I stood in the middle of the room with my arms folded tightly around me, trying to pull myself together.

Matt

I heard the door close, and then Lau went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me, so I wandered in to help her.

‘Hey, Lau, did I hear the kettle go –’

Lau was standing with her back to me, arms tightly folded, head bowed, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh fuck, you’re crying.’

I quickly went to her and pulled her into my arms.

‘Ssh, Lau. Oh please don’t, baby.’

This was all such a mess. I couldn’t handle Lau being this upset, and now she was crying harder, sobbing onto my chest.

‘Oh angel, don’t. Ssh.’

I’d used ‘baby’ and ‘angel’, my two best comfort words, and neither of them had made any difference at all. I hugged her as tightly as I could and kissed the top of her head as she wept, until she’d cried it all out and she shuddered to a halt, breathing hotly into my t-shirt.

‘I’m sorry Lau. I didn’t think about what all this is doing to you, and with worrying about the test in a few days as well.’

‘Did you hear what Dec said?’

Yeah, I got it, he wasn’t going to give up.

‘What, about him being a stubborner fucking bastard? Yeah, I get that, old news. I heard what you said too. Thanks.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant about him not taking sides. It affects all of us, will affect all of us for a long time if you carry on.’

I loosened my hold on her a little so I could look down at her. Throughout the day and into the evening, I had been getting more and more pissed off with my fucking family’s claims on me, what they thought they had a right to say or do. Things weren’t the same as they used to be, but they still thought they bloody owned me. I was just so tired of it, tired of fighting it and tired of fighting about it.

‘I know that. Maybe it’s time …’

I wasn’t quite ready to announce my as-yet-incomplete proposal, and backed away from what I’d been about to blurt out.

‘… I’m just still going over it all, Lau.’

Laura

He’d stopped himself in the middle of a sentence, but I could almost feel the weight behind the words he didn’t say, and a spike of fear shot through me. Once Matt got an idea in his head, it was nigh-on impossible to shake it out. Usually it was something that didn’t really matter, like building a fire pit in the garden, or spending an afternoon at Diggerworld, but there was so much more at stake this time. What was he considering?

‘Maybe it’s time for what?’

Matt

She had stiffened in my arms.

‘Nothing. I’m angry, I’m just thinking about stuff. Options.’

Laura

This was now properly scary. If Matt was starting to make decisions on his own, without consulting me, there was no telling what he’d end up doing, or wanting to do. Once he’d convinced himself about a course of action, it would be really hard to talk him out of it. Matt was much more flexible when he was at the talking stage of making his mind up.

‘Do I have any say in these options?’

Matt

She searched my face for what the fuck I was talking about. It was all just feelings at the moment, I hadn’t had a chance to put words to any of it, but now I had to, because I needed to explain it to Lau.

‘Well, of course, but not about how I feel. And how I feel at the moment is my bloody family is more trouble than they’re worth, and I’d be better off without them.’

Laura

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. He was going to ditch the family in some way, separate himself, and that meant all of us, from them.

‘Matt!’ I pushed myself away from him, looking at him in horror. ‘You can’t mean that.’

Matt

‘I’m still just thinking, Lau.’

I wasn’t going to get into discussing it, it was just how I was feeling.

Laura

Despite his words, there was a lift to his chin that defied me to try to contradict him. I remembered this feeling – I’d faced it in his flat when I’d seen a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky, and things had hung in the balance. In a panic, I tried to find something, anything, that would convince him not to make that final decision. I could almost see the years ahead, locked in a feud with Jay that had such small origins but would be so devastating to us all. Devastating to Matt and me and our children.

‘Please talk to Jay before you decide anything like that. Please try and sort it out with him.’

Matt

‘I can’t even think about him, let alone talk to him at the moment.’

This was nothing to do with Jay, none of his business. He wasn’t the only one who could decide who was or wasn’t a part of his family. People could be out as well as in, and perhaps it was time I just got out and broke away, got rid of their interfering nagging for good. At that moment, the thought was extremely appealing. Just me, Lau and the babies.

Laura

The calm tone that Matt was talking about this in was more scary than if he’d yelled. It chilled me to the core. Matt without his family wasn’t something I’d ever thought I’d have to contemplate; they were part of him, they almost defined him, they were all in his thoughts and controlled his actions one way or another for a lot of his waking hours. And now I might be pregnant – if I had another baby I’d need them all, or I’d go under like I nearly had before. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let it happen. He needed them, and I needed them. This wasn’t just about him any more. I walked over to the counter and picked up the car keys.

‘I’m going out.’

‘What?’

‘I won’t be long.’

‘Where are you going?’

Matt

Oh what the fuck was she up to now?

‘Back soon. Need bread.’

Laura

Before Matt could react I ran out of the door and got in the car, started the engine and reversed onto the road. I expected him to run after me, maybe try to stop me, but I drove away before he could catch up with me.

Matt

It was an obvious lie. We had tons of bread. That shocked me more than anything – Lau had never lied to me. I started to go after her, to, I don’t know, jump in the car, stop her, find out what she was going to do, but a cry from upstairs reminded me that she’d got me good and proper. I couldn’t leave, because I couldn’t leave Josh and Ella.

I took some deep breaths as I heard the car reverse off the drive and pull away. Then I went upstairs to see what the fuss was about up there, but all was quiet, as if neither of them had made a sound. I sat up there for a while, in the dark, listening to their noises, trying to let everything go, trying not to think about it all.

God I loved these two tiny people; they were all I needed, them and Lau. We were a family, a unit. As long as we were together, we wouldn’t need anything or anyone. Everything was OK. It was.

Once I was sure neither of them were going to start yelling for real, I went back downstairs and sat in front of the TV. There was more football, some European game I wasn’t interested in, but it was something to distract me. I checked my phone, but Lau hadn’t texted or called, and it was eating away at me, not knowing where she was or what she was doing. No one else had contacted me, either, and I was a bit surprised that the Summers kid had given up so easily. It wasn’t like him, and it made me apprehensive.

Laura

All the way there, I went over and over in my mind what I was going to do, my heart pounding, determination to end this fuelling my own anger at the two idiotic brothers.

Matt

Paranoia started to grip me, and I imagined Lau having some kind of family pow-wow where they all decided what was best for me and then tried to browbeat me into their way of doing things. Well they could all just go fuck themselves. Oh but Lau wouldn’t really do that, would she? No, it had seemed like a spur of the moment thing, the way she took off. Where the fuck was she, then?

My self-distraction techniques weren’t working very well; I couldn’t concentrate on the football, and every time a car went past I listened intently to see if it pulled onto the drive. I kept checking my phone, although I would have heard if a call or a text had come through. The babies were quiet, but I started to wonder what I was going to do if they needed feeding, so I checked the fridge, and found enough milk for both of them. Lau wouldn’t even run off spontaneously without making sure we were all looked after. I thought about texting her, but decided against it, then decided for it, then decided against it again as I was half way through a text that sounded angrier than I intended. Come on, Lau, how long does it take to ‘get bread’ or whatever the fuck it is you’re really doing?

I opened my emails, and found the links I’d sent to myself from work. I had a good look at the jobs in the links, and downloaded an application form for one of them. The job was in Aberdeen. I started filling out the form.

Laura

A short journey later and I was outside Beth and Jay’s house, vaguely noticing that Dec’s car was also outside. I ran up the path and rang the doorbell. Beth answered the door.

‘Laura!’

‘Is Jay here?’

‘Yes, he’s talking to Dec –’

‘I need to talk to him.’

‘They’re in his office.’

I pushed past Beth, a bit rudely, crossed the hallway and shoved the door to Jay’s office wide open. Jay was sitting in his leather swivel chair, and Dec was perched on the edge of the desk. They both looked at me in surprise as I barged in. I didn’t wait to be greeted.

‘Jay, you need to sort this out with Matt. I know you’re having some kind of man-off about it, but he’s talking about being better off without his family. You can’t let that happen. I know you’re both ridiculously attached to your pride, but one of you needs to give in, and I don’t think it’s going to be Matt. You said some hurtful things to him, and he’s got himself all worked up about it, so whatever it is you’re not talking about, you need to talk about it, sort it out, apologise, whatever it takes. I don’t care how you do it, but do it. Please.’

I ground to a halt as Jay and Dec stared at me. Dec started to speak, but Jay interrupted him.

‘OK.’

I was winding myself up to start again, and Jay’s short reply took the wind out of my sails.

‘What?’

‘OK, I’ll do whatever it takes, like you asked. Mr Summers here was just pointing out something very similar, and I’ve had my wife and my mother bending my bloody ear for the last two days, so just to get a bit of peace, OK, I agree, I’ve been an arse, I’ll sort it out with Matty.’

‘Really?’

My voice trembled, and I felt a bit wobbly, I was so relieved.

‘You’ve got to talk to him.’

‘I know. Give me a minute, I just want to finish something off in here. Turn the printer on, Dec.’

‘Thanks, Jay.’

‘No need to thank me, Laura. I’m sorry I’ve upset you all, I was pretty stupid. Why don’t you both get a drink? I won’t be long here.’

And so, dismissed, Dec and I went into the kitchen where we were joined by Beth.

‘So …?’

Dec answered, as I was too shaken to speak.

‘He’s going over in a minute, to, er, what was it Lau? Do whatever it takes. To sort it out.’

Beth leaned on the counter, sagging with relief. She looked at me and put an arm round my shoulders as I tried to take it in, that Jay had actually backed down. He hadn’t even seemed that angry, and I wondered what was different about either Jay’s temperament or the approach he had been subjected to, to make him react like this instead of digging his heels in like Matt had.

‘Oh sweetheart, thank goodness. What did you say?’

Beth looked up at Dec and put her hand on his arm.

‘Well, I just pointed out how things nearly went pear shaped with him and me a few years ago, because I stopped talking, and asked him if he wanted the same thing to happen with Matt. I’d only just started, really, and then Lau barged in like some kind of fucking scary mad woman on a mission and told him that Matt was thinking about ditching the family and he needed to sort it, which kind of sealed it, I think.’

Beth turned to me, eyes wide.

‘Oh Laura, Matt was going to do what?’

‘He said he’d be better off without his family, and he told me a while ago he was offered a job in Norwich, I’m just worried he’s going to do something impulsive.’

‘But James is going to sort it out?’

‘Yeah, he said he’s coming in a minute. I really hope he can say something to stop all this.’

‘Did James say anything else?’

‘Not to me, but I didn’t really give him a chance.’

‘Dec?’

‘I’d only just got here myself.’

‘Well he’s going to have to do some serious talking when he gets back, then. I let him get away with grunting too much, he never says what’s on his mind. Not this time, though.’

While Beth thought about how she was going to extract information from Jay, I suddenly remembered what I’d said to Matt when I left home. I’d lied to him. I never lied. Was it still a lie if he knew it was a lie? He’d known it was a lie, right? The sort of lie you tell when you don’t want to say ‘I’m going to see your brother so I can make him talk to you and stop you doing this ridiculous thing’, so instead say ‘We need bread’, when we have at least two loaves in the bread bin and several in the freezer. Well there’s an easy way round it, Laura Scott.

‘Beth, have you got a loaf of bread?’

Beth looked at me in complete confusion.

‘Bread?’

‘Yeah. I told Matt I was going out for bread. I’ve never lied to him.’

‘Oh. Oh Laura, that’s so lovely. Here, sweetheart.’

She gave me a smile, reached behind her and took a loaf out of the cupboard as Jay came in, holding an envelope.

‘Do you know where my car keys are, Beth?’

‘Hanging up on the key hook? Oh no, silly me, they’re never there, are they. In your pocket? By the phone? Still in the car? Office? Jacket? Shall I continue?’

‘If you like, but I can’t get going and sort this out with Matty until I find them, so more help, less sarcasm, thanks.’

‘Come with me, Jay, I can bring you back later.’

‘Maybe you’d better, James, it took you an hour to find your keys yesterday.’

‘Oh alright. Are you sure, Laura?’

‘Yeah. Are you ready now?’

Jay nodded, and we left, Dec staying to play on the X-box with Cal.

Jay seemed nervous in the passenger seat, and twisted the envelope in his hands until it was screwed up and grubby.

‘Thanks, Jay. I’m sorry I just went off like that, but I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘It’s OK, Laura. I think I needed a bit of a rocket. I’m not good at talking. I don’t really talk much to Matty, or haven’t for a while, not about important stuff. I’m a bit worried about what I’m going to say. He’s better with words than me.’

‘Just say what you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be clever or fancy, just true.’

‘Thanks. That helps. You probably want to bang our heads together.’

‘It had occurred to me. But coming over and giving you a verbal slap was almost as satisfying.’

‘Has it been bad? With Matty, I mean. He can … he hasn’t for a long time, but he can get pretty down, has these black moods. It can be grim.’

‘No, not down exactly, but he’s been angry and won’t talk to me about it. I know there’s a lot of brother stuff between you that I won’t ever get to the bottom of –’

‘Laura, can I ask you something? About his MS?’

As a change of subject, it was about as abrupt as they came, but I went with it.

‘Er, OK.’

‘How likely is it to come back?’

‘Oh. Well, it isn’t something that goes away, really, it’s always there, and a lot of it depends on how well he looks after himself. It’s impossible to say, Jay; flare-ups are unpredictable to a large extent. Why do you ask?’

‘Well, is stress a cause?’

‘It can be.’

Jay sighed.

‘I think one of the reasons I overreacted the other night was I’m worried if he gets this job at Raiders, he’ll be stressed and it’ll make him ill. He’s just got over the last bout, he’s coped with getting married, having the twins, all that, really well, but it’s full-on at Raiders, busy, demanding. I know his job at the moment has taken the MS into account, I’m not sure Raiders would, or could, to the same extent.’

‘He has to make that decision for himself. It’s lovely that you want to protect him, but to be honest, the last few days have been stressful enough to be a trigger in themselves. And staying in a job he’s unhappy in could too. There’s just no knowing. He works well under pressure, and he’s a lot better at being aware of how he’s feeling these days.’

‘You’ve been good for him.’

‘Hm, don’t know about that, but he talks to me about stuff, usually, which I gather he hasn’t always.’

‘Ha ha, Jesus, no, getting Matty to talk about anything seriously has always been a bit of a challenge, although Dec seems to have managed it from time to time. OK, well, I’ll try the talking, and see how it goes.’

‘Good luck. He won’t be happy to see you.’

‘Used to that. I can brazen it out.’

69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.

4. Come away with me

In which Matty and Carrie escape a problem only to run into a whole new set of complications.

Matt

I pulled up outside Dave’s Café, a delightfully unmodern greasy spoon with no parking outside. As it had taken me eighteen minutes to get there, I didn’t worry too much about parking on the double yellow lines, ditched the car and ran into the café.

Carrie was nowhere to be seen. Shit, I’d taken too long and she’d lost her nerve and gone back to him. I was such a pillock, why hadn’t I just given myself five more minutes? She’d still be here and – the door to the toilets opened and Carrie looked out warily. The relief that crossed her face when she saw me was probably mirrored on my own, and I crossed the floor to her quickly. When I reached her, I had to stop myself sweeping her into my arms; I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed her, how unbelievably good it was to see her again, but she’d called me as a friend, she was in trouble, and she didn’t need me complicating matters just now. I stopped in front her, a completely inappropriate soppy grin on my face.

‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘Sorry. I thought I saw Martin through the window. I was hiding out. Thank you for coming.’

I hadn’t really got any further than meeting her in the café, in my mind, events having happened in a bit of rush, and now it occurred to me that I didn’t have a plan. I’d told her to pack some things, but didn’t know if she’d want to stay with me or not. Maybe the most important thing was to get out of the neighbourhood where she lived, thus diminishing the chances of running into muscle boy Martin.

‘Shall we go back to my place, decide what to do?’

Carrie nodded, seeming happy for me to make decisions for her at this point.

‘Come on then.’

I led the way to my car, pulling my phone out and sending a quick text to Mercy.

‘So sorry, Merce. Let me have the bill for the taxi. Mx’

I could try to rectify at least some of the disaster. Before I’d got home, I had her reply.

‘Have own friends 2 rescue me. Fuck u.’

So much for rectifying anything. Another one to chalk up to experience. Carrie had been silent for the journey until then, but must have seen the look on my face.

‘Problems?’

‘Er, not any more. Nothing for you to worry about. Here we are then. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.’

I picked up Carrie’s small bag and led her up the stairs to the small flat where I lived. I saw her expression when she realised there was only one bedroom, and I knew that staying with me wasn’t going to be an option for her.

‘Right, first things first, kettle on, cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’

‘Have you got anything herbal?’

‘Here.’

I handed her a tin full of fruit and herbal teas and she picked one out.

‘You’re very tidy.’

‘Am I? Blame my mum. She drilled it into me when I was little. Did a good job, can’t bear mess.’

‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’

Carrie was still standing just inside the door, which to be fair wasn’t that far from the rest of the flat, but she looked ill at ease, and I was suddenly worried that one wrong word would chase her away.

‘Come and sit down. Tell me about it?’

I beckoned her over to the sofa, which was a two-seater, nice and cosy for two people who knew each other well, but uncomfortable for two people who didn’t, one of who fancied the pants off the other, the other of who was aware of that but had just been through some sort of traumatic event.

I sat on the floor, just so there were no mixed messages or crossed wires, or mistaken nudges with a thigh. Carrie crossed the room slowly and sat down gingerly, perching on the edge of the seat, looking for all the world as if she wanted to run away. I got up again, made the tea, took the mugs over, and resumed my place on the floor.

‘Just talk to me, Carrie.’

‘I don’t know what to say. It all feels so stupid now.’

‘Well, why don’t you tell me about it, and we can decide after that if it’s stupid or not, and if it is, I can take you home, and if it isn’t, then we can think about what to do.’

The look of sheer panic that gripped her face when I mentioned taking her home told me it wasn’t stupid.

I decided to let her tell me about it in her own time, to try not to rush things. I was completely out of my comfort zone, never having met anyone before who had left someone they were scared of and asked me for help, and as well as giving Carrie time, I felt like I needed time to absorb it too. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor for a while, then looked up at me and held my gaze.

‘He’s just so jealous, it happens every term, every time there’s a new class, he comes afterwards to check everyone out, then scares off anyone he thinks is a threat. This time, with you, he just wouldn’t let it go, even when you left, even when he came every week afterwards just to make sure, he just kept going on and on. He was convinced I was still seeing you, that something was going on behind his back, and today, he just … he was worse than I’ve ever seen him. I think he’s got some real problems. He thought he’d seen you out of the window, and he went downstairs to fight you or something, but when you weren’t there he convinced himself you’d seen him coming, and run away. You weren’t there were you?’

‘No! I didn’t even know where you lived until you called me. And I was on top of Potter Hill, nowhere near you. He sounds seriously deranged.’

‘He came back up to the flat, with a right cob on, then started throwing his weight around.’

‘He hurt you?’

‘No, not really, just telling me what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I tried to leave, to walk out, just get a bit of distance, and he grabbed the door out of my hand and slammed it shut. It wrenched my arm a bit. He told me I wasn’t allowed to leave the flat unless it’s with him.’

‘What? You didn’t stand for that, surely.’

‘Well no, obviously, but he was really laying down the law, all kind of ‘you’re my woman and what I say goes’, worse than he’s been before. He didn’t hurt me, but he did say I should do as I was told or it wouldn’t be pretty.’

‘Fucking bastard.’

‘Yeah, well, he meant it. It was the look on his face when he said it, it really scared me. I just imagined being locked up there in the flat forever, not able to go out on my own. He’s capable of doing it – you’ve seen how he uses his muscle. I think he’s on steroids or something, they’re messing with his head.’

‘Holy shit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, he went out again, to the gym, it’s always to the gym, and I was so relieved to have some peace from all the intensity, but then he said I’d better be there when he came back, if I knew what was good for me.’

Oh yeah, I’d been on the end of that ‘if you know what’s good for you’ speech too.

‘And that’s when I called you. It just seemed to have got out of hand. He’ll be back by now, he’ll know I’ve gone.’

‘Have you? Gone, I mean.’

‘I don’t think I can go back.’

I inwardly fist-pumped, but kept my expression neutral.

‘Does he know where I live?’

‘I suppose it’s a possibility. All the details from my classes, addresses and stuff, are on my computer. He could find out if he wanted to.’

Shit, so we weren’t safe here, either. Was I building this up out of proportion? It didn’t feel like it. Martin had threatened me, and now he’d threatened Carrie, and he seemed like the sort of bloke who thought with his abs and pecs rather than his brain. If he found out where I lived, I didn’t fancy either of our chances if he got here and found us together, however innocently.

‘It would be bad if he turns up here and finds you here too, especially if he’s been making up fantasies about us.’

‘Well I suppose it wasn’t all fantasy on his part.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well I know you were attracted to me.’ Oh, that, OK. ‘It … wasn’t all one way.’

‘Holy shit, Carrie. Did you tell him that?’

‘No, of course not, I’m not stupid. But neither is he. Maybe I talked about you too much, maybe I shouldn’t have told him about you calling yourself Cute Arse that time after my interview. Oh bloody hellfire, this is such a mess.’

‘Do you love him?’

Carrie was silent for a minute, looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘I did, in the beginning. I don’t know, now. Can you love someone you’re scared of?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’re right, I shouldn’t stay here, he’ll go mental if he does come round and I’m here. I should go.’

‘Where will you go?’

The fact that she had called me, rather than a close girl friend, told me that she didn’t have anyone else. She hung her head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you got any family nearby?’

Carrie laughed bitterly. ‘Just my mum, but unless I’m delivering money to buy the next bottle of booze, she’s not interested.’

‘So you couldn’t stay with her, then?’

‘Couldn’t, wouldn’t.’

‘Friends?’

Again, she wouldn’t meet my eyes as she answered.

‘He’s chased them all away, called them interfering do-gooders, scared them off with his bullying. Eventually they all got fed up trying to convince me he’s no good for me, and there’s no one left I can call on now. Except you.’

She looked up, a plea in her eyes, and my heart melted. No way was I going to turf her out, but no way were we just going to stay here, waiting for Martin to come along and kick the door down. Desperate times, desperate measures.

‘Have you ever been to Devon?’

‘What?’

‘Have you?’

‘Not since I was little, on holiday.’

‘Well maybe it’s time for a jaunt.’

‘What?’

‘My brother lives down there, I’m not sure they’ve got room for us, but I’m overdue a visit, and Beth, his wife, would be great at helping you sort all this out. We can get a B and B, separate rooms, just so you can have a break, without having to worry about bumping into Martin, or him coming round here, sort yourself out a bit. What do you say?’

She looked at me again, hopefully, as if I was offering her the winning ticket in the Lottery.

‘It would be good to escape for a bit.’

‘Sorted then.’

‘But I haven’t got much stuff with me, I didn’t have time. I’ve only got a change of underwear and a toothbrush.’

I waved that away as inconsequential.

‘You can either borrow stuff off Beth, or we can buy you stuff. We’ll sort it when we get there. Seriously? You’re up for it?’

‘Yeah. Why not.’

‘Great. I’ll just call them.’

‘Can I use your loo?’

‘Sure – that door.’

I got my phone out and pressed Jay’s name.

‘Jay Scott.’

‘Hey, it’s me.’

‘Matty! What have we done to deserve such an honour?’

‘Er, I need a favour.’

‘Oh, not just calling to find out how we all are, then?’

‘Obviously, would love to chat for hours, know how much you love a good gossip, but a bit short on time. I don’t suppose you’ve got room to put me and a friend up for a few days?’

‘Ah, no mate, sorry, not unless you’re happy on the sofa. Now Dec’s here we’ve got no spare room.’

Bugger, I’d forgotten about their lodger, the teenage rugby protégé. I would have been happy on the sofa with Carrie in the spare room, but it looked like it was going to be a B and B.

‘OK, no problem. We’re coming down today, you don’t know any good B and Bs do you?’

‘Does it have to be B and B? I could get you discount on a room in the big hotel near Raiders Stadium.’

‘Two rooms.’

‘Really? I thought when you said ‘friend’, you meant “friend”, as in –’

‘Yeah, very funny. Friends, as in separate rooms. That’d be great, though, the discount. Can you book for us? A week, from tonight?’

‘Sure. Impulse holiday is it?’

‘Kind of. I’ll explain when we get there. Are you in tonight?’

‘Mate, we’ve got a three year old. We’re always in.’

Three year old Cal, my nephew, was a great kid and I really didn’t see as much of him as a doting uncle should. Mum was always going down there to visit, coming back with pictures and stories about what he’d got up to. Maybe visiting Jay and Beth would help redress the balance a little.

‘Good, we’ll see you later then.’

‘Name?’

‘What?’

‘Your friend’s name? I’ll get in trouble if I haven’t asked, you know what Beth’s like.’

‘Oh. Carrie.’

‘Woman, then.’

‘Well spotted.’

‘Potential?’

‘Piss off, Jay. See you later.’

I disconnected, to the sound of Jay laughing, as Carrie came out of the loo.

‘All sorted. My brother hasn’t got room, I forgot they’ve taken in some teenage stray, but he can get us discount at a hotel nearby, Raiders privileges.’

‘What privileges?’

‘Raiders. They’re a rugby team. My brother is a coach.’

‘Oh. I didn’t realise. That’s great. Thank you.’

‘Are you ready, then?’

‘Yes, as I’ll ever be. This is weird.’

‘Yeah. But let’s just go with it. If it’s too weird, we can always come back, but maybe being away from here will be good. I said a week – can you get time off work?’

‘I don’t work in the summer holidays. That’s another thing Martin has over me – I can only pay my way when I’m working. How about you, though?’

‘It’ll be fine, I’m due some leave. I’m pretty up to date with things. I can always do stuff when I’m down there, if I take my iPad.’

And so we left, me locking up as securely as I could, worrying a little bit about old Mrs Harding next door, and what might happen if she came out for a nose while Martin was trying to find me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it without calling to see her and further delaying us with long explanations and repetitions for her deafness. I didn’t pack much beyond a few pairs of boxers and some toiletries. Carrie was going to need to go shopping, no reason I shouldn’t too, my pathological dislike of city centres notwithstanding.

Carrie was quiet for the first part of the journey. I thought it best to let her talk when she wanted to, but not to press her too much. She was going to be subjected to enough of an interrogation when she met Beth, and I thought I’d better prepare her.

‘My sister-in-law, Beth, she’s pretty bossy, but I think she’ll be able to help us figure out what to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, when my mum got arthritis, she was great, sorted out stuff for her, got things moving.’

‘I haven’t got arthritis.’

‘No, of course not, but it’s a different type of … trauma … I suppose, isn’t it.’

‘I suppose. Have they been married long?’

‘About four years. They’ve got a little boy, oh, and a big boy now as well.’

I launched into a detailed account of Cal and Dec, how great Cal was, with his blond ringlets, serious grey eyes and how he couldn’t say Uncle when he was younger, so I was Unca Matty. And how, about a year ago now, Jay and Beth had taken in a young lad who was newly signed by Raiders, who had no parents and needed temporary accommodation, and how he’d stayed, and looked like staying for the foreseeable.

I’d only met Dec a couple times; he was a typical teenager, in that people over the age of twenty were old age pensioners to him and not worthy of his notice. The first time I met him, shortly after he’d arrived, he’d been sullen, rude and done his best to annoy me. It had worked. But apparently Beth had worked her magic on him, and when I visited again later in the year, although I didn’t see much of him, he seemed to have less of a bad attitude.

Carrie seemed to relax as I burbled on, more comfortable with chatter than with serious talk. I looked over about an hour into the journey, and she was asleep. Or at least had her eyes closed and her head was leaning against the headrest.

As I drove I reflected on what a mad situation I had got myself into. Running away to Devon wasn’t going to solve anything in the long run. We were going to have to go back to Stafford in a few days, Martin would still be there, still need dealing with, Carrie would still need somewhere to live. All I had done was postpone it all in a fit of protective ardour. And possibly with less virtuous motives behind it too.

It hadn’t escaped me that spending time with Carrie would help us to get to know each other. She had as good as admitted that she was attracted to me, and some exclusive time together might help things along a little. I hoped I could strike the right balance between friend and something more without freaking her out and scaring her off. I would just have to ensure that my baser urges remained well hidden, and I that made no moves on her without being expressly invited. Looking at the beautiful woman sleeping beside me, a slight frown dimpling her forehead, that wasn’t going to be easy.

I pulled the car up outside Jay’s big house at the end of the cul-de-sac at about six o’clock. The front door opened and I saw Beth framed in the doorway, as an excited Cal ran down the path towards me. I got out of the car and scooped him up as he squealed, wriggling as I held him over my head, making him squeal even louder. He’d grown quite a bit since the last time I saw him and I couldn’t hold him like that for long, so tucked him onto my hip.

‘Unca Matty sausage for tea.’

‘That’s great mate. Let’s take you to Mummy for a minute, I need to get something out of the car.’

Beth took Cal from me, while giving me a quizzical raise of her eyebrows and looking pointedly at Carrie, who was still in the car. Ignoring Beth, I went round to the passenger door and opened it.

‘OK?’

‘Bit nervous. I don’t know these people.’

‘Not yet. Won’t take long. Beth’s a nosy cow, Jay’s a lazy sod, Cal’s three and a half and Dec’s a teenager. But I doubt you’ll see much of him anyway.’

‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’

‘We’re escaping. Together. Think of it as like … an adventure. We’ll explore Devon, go to the seaside, eat ice-cream, get charged exorbitant amounts to see touristy shit. The price we pay is having to spend a bit of time with my family. At least we’re not staying with them. We can leave whenever you like, go to the hotel Jay’s arranged. Five minutes, if that’s all you can stand. At least come and say hello? It’ll save me a long phone call from the chronically curious Beth Scott.’

‘Really? Five minutes?’

‘Give it a shot. Stage one of the adventure?’

She gave me a weak smile and nodded. I held out my hand and helped her out of the car. When I looked up, Jay was standing at the front door with Beth and Cal, looking for all the world like the family unit they were.

I thought, as I walked up the path with Carrie, how different Jay’s life was from mine, how different his goals, his priorities were. It was almost as if we were from different families. But I also recognised how much easier I was with those differences now, how much less it irritated me that he was bigger and stronger, spent a lot of his life in the spotlight, that he was a family man. I’d chosen my own way, and it wasn’t the same as his, and that was OK.

‘This is Carrie. Carrie, you’ll probably have worked out by now that this is Beth, Jay and Cal.’

‘Otherwise known as nosy cow, lazy sod and three and a half?’

There was a short, stunned silence as Carrie’s forthrightness sunk in, then Beth laughed.

‘I see Matty’s given you the lowdown on our personality traits. Come on in, Carrie. Tea’s almost ready.’

She turned and went in, heading towards the kitchen. Jay waved us through into the lounge and pointed at the sofa.

‘I can’t believe you told your friend I’m a lazy sod.’

‘Can’t you? Really? Search your soul, Jay, the truth will out.’

‘Daddy, what lacy sold?’

‘Now look what you’ve done, I’ll be in the doghouse for that. Nothing, Cal, just grown up words.’

‘Lacy sold lacy sold’

‘Yep, lacy sold, your Daddy’s a big old lacy sold. Drink, you two?’

‘Beer please.’

‘Goes without saying, Matty. Carrie – wine, something stronger, something softer, what can I get you?’

‘Water would be great.’

‘Oh, OK. Not sure we’ve got any, have to check with Beth.’

He gave Carrie a wink and went off to sort the drinks.

I leaned over to Carrie, who was hugging the end of the sofa nearest to the door as if she thought someone was going to try to chain her to it and she’d need to make a swift exit.

‘See, they’re not so bad. And thanks for telling them what I called them. Big help.’

‘It seemed to break the ice.’

‘It certainly did that. You’ll probably have a few chunks in your water, if Jay can locate the tap. He’s not great at navigating the kitchen.’

Cal, who had been standing by me, leaning on my knee, looking solemnly at Carrie without speaking, climbed on the sofa and deposited himself in my lap.

‘Hey mate. How’s life?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Er … is everything good in the world of Cal?’

‘What you mean?’

‘I think what your Unca Matty is trying to say is, have you done anything good today?’

‘Hey, you speak kid. Impressive.’

Cal nodded, seeming to be thinking.

‘I do a poo. In the big boys’ toilet.’

‘Whoa, Cal. Clever you. Is there no end to your talents?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Oh boy, I’m going to have to take whatever class you took in kid, aren’t I?

‘Yeah. Stop using fancy words, he won’t understand them. That’s the class.’

‘Oh. Thank you for passing on your wisdom so succinctly.’

‘You like it, don’t you, words and stuff.’

‘I suppose I do. Is it annoying?’

‘Not to me, I quite like it, but a three year old might find it a bit much.’

Jay came in with our drinks, we had tea at the table – sausages, as predicted by Cal – then Beth put Cal to bed. Dec, the teenage lodger, poked his head round the door, saw me, nodded and said ‘Alright’, although I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, then disappeared back from whence he came.

I noted that Carrie had lasted longer than five minutes, and still hadn’t asked to leave. She was looking more comfortable, although none of us had yet broached the reason for our unexpected visit. Chat over tea had been general catching up; family stuff (how Cal was getting on at pre-school), rugby stuff (how Jay was getting on at not playing and being a coach instead), my job (how I was getting on at not doing a spectacular job in a part of the world more exotic than Stafford), carefully keeping away from asking Carrie anything about herself. Beth came downstairs after a while, sighed and plonked herself down on one of the enormous sofas.

‘So, what’s all this about, then?’

‘What? Can’t a bloke just visit his brother and favourite sister-in-law when he feels like it?’

‘You know you’re welcome anytime Matty. You also know what I mean. Come on, give.’

I looked at Carrie, who had gone pale and was looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘Do you want me to say?’

She nodded, still looking down at her hands.

‘OK, but you’ll have to chip in if I get anything wrong.’

Another small nod.

‘Carrie’s boyfriend has been threatening her, she was scared, she left. I picked her up and brought her to mine, but we were worried he’d find us, so we’ve come down here to think about what to do. Is that it in a nutshell, Carrie?’

Another nod.

‘Oh Carrie. Has he done anything? Hurt you?’

‘No. Not really. Maybe small things, pinches, pulling my hair.’

This was news to me, but I kept my expression bland and stopped myself from rushing out to the car, driving back to Stafford and beating the shit out of him.

‘That’s not small, sweetheart. It’s the repertoire of a bully. Small jabs, little hurts, to let you know who’s in charge. What else has he done?’

‘I, er, he …’

Carrie looked at me imploringly. I took over.

‘I don’t know the whole story, but he seems to have reduced her life to just him, alienated her friends, controlling who goes to her bloody yoga classes even; he gave me the gangster treatment to stop me going. He’s paranoid about Carrie seeing other people, and he’d just announced that she wasn’t allowed to leave their flat without him. That’s when you rang me, wasn’t it?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘Oh sweetheart. It sounds like you got out just in time, it must have been very stressful.’

‘Wait, Matty, you’ve been doing yoga?’

‘Yeah, focus Jay. Not important right now.’

‘No, I grant you that, OK, but we’ll explore it later, for definite.’

‘Matty, you’ve obviously met this man. What’s he like?’

I glanced at Carrie. I didn’t hold a very high opinion of Martin, but he was her boyfriend, had been until earlier today, she’d loved him, I thought carefully about how I was going to give a balanced view of the bastard.

‘Big, strong bloke. Serious muscle. Carrie thinks he’s taking steroids. Nice line in intimidation.’

I left out the bit about him being the scum of the earth, the worst type of cowardly fucking bastard for what he’d done to her. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

‘He’s been good to me.’

Carrie’s voice was small and uncertain.

‘He’s helped me out, with money, with my mum. He’s always been there.’

‘Of course, Carrie.’

Beth’s voice was soothing.

‘If he hadn’t been good to you, you wouldn’t have stayed, would you? These things creep up on you, he changes bit by bit, you accept things you wouldn’t normally stand for because he’s been good to you. No one’s saying there haven’t been good times. Is it over between you, or do you want to go back to him?’

Carrie looked up, eyes wide and startled, and then a hint of indecision.

‘I … don’t know.’

‘What? You are joking, Carrie, there’s no way you can go back to him, he’s an arse-wipe, not fit to clean your fucking shoes.’

‘Matty. Stop it. Carrie has to consider it, what she wants, what the consequences are. She has to make her own decision. You two aren’t … together are you?’

‘What? No!’

My denial must have been more vehement than it needed to be as it elicited a raised eyebrow from both Beth and Jay.

‘I’m her friend. Just friends. Martin had this twisted idea there was something going on, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left the yoga class.’

I ignored Jay’s snigger.

‘He was seriously delusional.’

‘Well, maybe it needs to stay that way, Matty. Carrie, you need a clear head, time to think, consider your options. I think Matty did the right thing bringing you down here, it’s ideal, away from everything, everyone, space, time. If you need to talk, we’re here.’

Carrie nodded. ‘Thank you. Actually, Matt, I’m really tired. Can we go soon?’

‘Yeah, course. Jay, did you manage to book us a couple of rooms at the hotel?’

A smug grin crossed Jay’s face.

‘Yeah. Best rooms in the place.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Nothing! You’re so suspicious, little bro. Just followed your instructions.’

I gave him a scowl, to let him know how annoyed I’d be if he’d done anything stupid, like the bridal suite.

‘OK, thanks then.’

I stood up and turned to Carrie.

‘Shall we?’

It wasn’t a long journey; the hotel was really close to Jay’s house. Carrie turned to me as I got in and shut the driver’s door.

‘You’re right, she is a nosy cow.’

‘Did warn you.’

‘I like her, though, she says what she thinks. Your brother doesn’t say much, does he.’

‘Not noticeably.’

‘I expect you make up for it in the chat department.’

‘A distinct possibility.’

‘And your little nephew, with all that curly blonde hair, and his eyes are just like yours.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, big and grey. He’s a cutie.’

I tried to work out what she was saying, and decided things were already complicated enough without me finding backhanded compliments in simple statements. Beth had clearly warned me that getting involved with Carrie wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment, and I regretfully concurred.

‘He’s certainly a little heart-breaker. He’s been married twice and looking for wife number three.’

‘What?’

‘Nursery school. Hotbed of lunchtime weddings. And divorces by the sounds of it. You can’t say kids don’t get an early grounding in the intricacies of the adult world.’

‘Ha ha, no I guess not. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?’

‘Great idea. Although, I think I’m going to need to go shopping first, I didn’t bring much with me.’

‘Hm, me too. OK, shops, beach. Plan.’

I settled comfortably into the car seat, looking forward to spending time with Carrie, having her to myself for a whole week, with no pressure, getting to know her, her getting to know me.

‘Plan indeed. Oh, look, that’s it there, with the big blue sign shining into space.’

‘Swanky. Are you sure it’s not going to be really expensive? I haven’t got much money.’

‘Jay said discount. I’m hoping my tight-arse brother will know that should mean barely costing anything at all.’

We parked, grabbed our stuff from the boot and walked into reception, trying not to goggle at the opulence.

‘Hello, can I help you?’

‘Yeah, we’ve got two rooms booked in the name of Scott.’

‘Ah, yes sir. You’re in the Scott Suite. Here is your key, Sebastian will take your bags.’

‘Oh, that’s OK, our bags aren’t very heavy. Save Sebastian for someone with serious luggage.’

The lurking Sebastian looked seriously grumpy at missing out on a tip for carrying my boxers and Carrie’s toothbrush up in the lift.

‘Did you say the … er … Scott Suite? I asked my brother to book two rooms.’

‘Yes, sir, there are two bedrooms in the suite. We are always honoured to have members of Mr Scott’s family staying with us. Mr Scott wished me to tell you that the room is complimentary.’

‘What … free? Or just going to be really really nice about us?’

The woman behind the reception desk kept a stony face.

‘There will be no charge, sir.’

‘Whoa. Way to go Jay. Cheers then.’

‘Will sir and madam be requiring breakfast in the suite tomorrow?’

‘Is that free too?’

I was aware I was pushing the boundaries of polite behaviour when it came to such a posh hotel. It really didn’t ‘do’ to be so open about not wanting to pay for stuff.

‘All meals, beverages, snacks and services are included, sir.’

‘Seriously? Holy shit. In that case, yes, breakfast, full English, thank you very much.’

‘Enjoy your stay, sir, madam.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how much.’

I walked off to the lift, a big smile on my face. Jay’s idea of a discount was incredible.

‘You look pleased with yourself.’

‘Did you hear that? Free room and board. Anything from the mini-bar. Meals included. Here! Here is serious dosh.’

‘Did Jay pay for it, do you think?’

Bugger, hadn’t thought of that. Didn’t want to be beholden to the older brother because he thought I couldn’t pay my way. I’d have to check with him tomorrow.

‘No idea. Top floor please.’

We got out on the top floor, walking past the outstretched hand of the lift boy with innocent smiles on our faces. I wasn’t intending to get stung for tips just because we were staying for free. We walked to the room, opened the door, and –

‘Holy shit. You bastard, Jay.’

The walls of the main living area were plastered with framed, poster sized signed photos of Jay from all eras of his rugby career. Some from his Royals days, via his time with TomCats, some in an England shirt, then Raiders, and one in his coaching regalia. A quick look in the bedrooms uncovered more of the same in both.

‘I’m not going to get any sleep in here.’

‘Your brother’s quite famous, isn’t he.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

‘This one, here, did he play for England, then?’

‘Might have.’

‘He was quite cute in his time, wasn’t he.’

‘Some may say so.’

‘Aw, are you jealous?’

‘No, got over it a long time ago. Just don’t particularly want his ugly mug gurning down at me all day and night. No wonder it was free, I doubt you’d get anyone to pay to stay in here.’

‘So you didn’t know he had a suite named after him in the local nobby hotel?’

‘He must have neglected to mention it.’

‘Modesty, I admire that in a man.’

‘Yeah, that’s why he didn’t tell me, too modest.’

My phone pinged with a text. Jay. What a surprise.

‘How do u like the room?’

‘It’ll b gr8 once housekeeping have removed all the offensive pictures some1 left behind.’

‘LOL enjoy yr stay. Think of me.’

‘Bit hard 2 think about any1 else.’

‘Job done, then.’

Well, just for that, Jay could pay, if indeed he had, and I was going to charge his credit card to the hilt with mini-bar, room service, laundry – if it was a performable service, I was going to get it performed. I looked around at the pictures. They were screwed to the wall, so I couldn’t even turn them round. Sighing, I turned to Carrie.

‘You choose which room you want, I’m happy in either. No, scratch that, I’m unhappy in either. Take the master, nice big bed, bit of comfort, yeah?’

‘Are you sure? It does look comfy.’

I don’t think Carrie realised how much I would sacrifice to see her happy and comfortable. Having the smaller of two pretty enormous beds was nothing.

‘I’m sure. Are you tired now? I know it’s still early, but if you want to go to bed that’s fine, you’ve had one hell of a day. If not, let’s fire up the TV and see what delights we can get on pay-per-view.’

‘I’m not ready for bed, not yet. What’s on telly?’

‘Well let’s see, shall we?’

And so we spent a very pleasant evening watching some crappy action film where the hero was in a race against time with a bunch of terrorists who had planted a bomb in a children’s playground. It was a ridiculous plot, and we laughed at the story and the dialogue, which were both trite. I ordered some snacks from room service, and we munched on ‘tortiles a jus’ (chips and dip) and ‘palomitas chocolat’ (chocolate coated popcorn) which would have been ten times cheaper if we’d got them from the local supermarket.

Eventually, I felt tired. I looked across at Carrie, and her eyes were drooping. The film hadn’t finished, but it was obvious the hero was going to save the day and get the girl in the end. If he didn’t, it was the worst action movie ever, and it was already pretty bad.

‘Hey, go to bed before I have to carry you in there and undress you.’

‘Careful, or I might just have to fall asleep now.’

Shit, no, didn’t mean to start flirty banter this close to bedtime.

‘You look tired. Go to bed.’

Carrie looked disappointed for a second, then nodded and stood up, yawning and stretching.

‘I am. Matt, thanks for this. It’s been a well weird day, I haven’t got my head round everything yet. Thanks for doing this for me.’

‘You should know that I’d do a lot to make sure you’re safe and happy.’

‘Can you do one more thing?’

‘If it’s within my power.’

‘Can I have a hug?’

Bollocks. A hug was well within my power, but a no-strings hug? When it was closer than I’d ever been to her? Oh well, in for a penny. Think random unsexy thoughts. Anne Widecombe. There you go.

‘Of course.’

I stood up and folded her up in my arms, feeling every curve of her body fit into every plane of mine. She nestled her head against my chest and sighed, and I was very aware of my body responding to the closeness. Bloody Anne Widecombe, why could the woman never do her job? Without intending to, I began stroking her hair. It was soft and fine and I loved the way it felt under my fingers.

I had my eyes closed, but felt Carrie look up at me. I opened my eyes to look down at her, and saw something in her face that definitely said more than friends. I saw desire, and want and need, and it couldn’t happen, not tonight, not while she was still sorting everything out. Why did being sensible and considerate feel so shitty? Regretfully, so regretfully, I gently pushed away from her, stroking her cheek as I did so and shaking my head.

‘Carrie, you’ll be the death of me.’

‘Don’t you want to?’

‘I think you know I do. I think you also know what a bad idea it would be, just now, with everything how it is. I think friends is how we should keep it, for the moment. I’ll still be here, when it’s all done. I’ll always be here for you. And if, after everything’s sorted, you still want to give us a go, then I’m so in. But not just a one night thing, not just a ‘thank you’, you deserve better than that.’

She looked down for a second, then back up at me, defiantly.

‘Trust me to find a knight in shining armour with a bloody conscience.’

‘Damn right. Off to bed with you milady. Your jousting tournament begins at nine of the morrow and there is a hectic afternoon of tapestry and banquet planning to be conquered.’

‘You really do like your fancy words, don’t you.’

‘Prefer numbers, actually.’

‘God, I hate to think what you do to numbers then.’

‘Tell you tomorrow. I’m off to bed, even if you’re happy to stand here all night insulting me and my beloved numbers.’

‘Matt … thank you. For thinking of me, putting me first. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, you hardly know me.’

I was backing away from her towards the door to my room as she spoke, as I really really needed to stop talking to her, looking at her, wanting to touch her, so much more than touch her.

‘That’s something I intend to correct over the next week. Night.’

‘Night.’

And with that, I disappeared, gratefully and ruefully, behind the shield of the bedroom door.

I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t even get into bed for ages, putting on the small TV and watching re-runs of twenty year old sitcoms, hoping to feel myself tire, but there was too much on my mind. I was going to find it hard to be Carrie’s friend only, especially if she continued to offer me more, but that was what I needed to be.

Was I being stupidly noble? I didn’t think so. If I took advantage of her vulnerability now, she’d hate me later. If I wanted something more, something – I could barely believe I was thinking this – long term, I needed to seriously curb my libido now, so that when she finally could see the wood for the trees, I was a broad oak for her to shelter under not a bonsai that … oh I tried all the metaphors, some of them even worse than that one.

I lay on the bed, thinking, trying to sort it all out. Finally it occurred to me that if I was having this much trouble thinking about it, Carrie would be having much more, having left her evil boyfriend and escaped to the south west of England with her one-time yoga student, staying in an unfamiliar part of the country, in an unfamiliarly fancy hotel. She needed to decide lots of things, and I needed to help her do it objectively, without my dick getting in the way of both of us.

Right, that decided, I finally felt my eyes start to close, and I stripped down to my boxers and crawled into the annoyingly incredibly comfortable bed.

I slept the sleep of the righteous, which I felt I very nearly merited given my self-denial of the night before, until I vaguely heard movement beyond my door, then a tap.

‘Matt?’

‘Mm.’

‘Breakfast is here.’

‘Wha’s time?’

‘Nearly eight.’

‘Shit, s’middle o’ fucking night. Sunday fo’ fucksake.’

‘Sorry about that, but if you want breakfast warm you’re going to have to get up and have it now.’

Had to stop myself telling her to fuck off. I never, ever got up before ten, at the earliest, on a Sunday. Sundays were sacrosanct, sacred, devoted to St Elijah, patron saint of sleep. But this Sunday, today, I was going to be with Carrie, and I needed to get a civil tongue in my head and start thinking about how I was going to spend the day with her.

That roused me, the thought of spending the whole day with Carrie.

‘Is it under those silver cover things, keeping it warm?’

‘It is.’

‘Great. I’ll just have a shower, then I’ll be there.’

I jumped out of bed, almost energetically, and into the en-suite shower, quick wash down, towel dry, dressed in yesterday’s clothes, and I was there. Carrie was still in her bathrobe, looking sleep-rumpled and sexy, sitting at the table by the window, with the view across the city to the hills and moors beyond. She’d placed the covered platters on the table and was sitting with her chin on her hand, tapping the table, pretending to look bored.

‘About time. I’m starving.’

‘I’m so changing breakfast time to later, tomorrow.’

‘Why? It wastes half the day if you just lie in bed.’

‘I love my sleep.’

‘I love my life, I’d rather be awake to enjoy it.’

She had a point, I suppose. Maybe just for this week I could be flexible.

We shopped and beached that day. I hardly cared that I was doing two of my least favourite activities in the whole wide world, i.e. wandering aimlessly round shops going ‘what do you think’ ‘lovely’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘well why did you ask’, and lying on a beach doing nothing except attracting melanomas.

I hardly cared, though, because the first meant I saw Carrie in a variety of different more or less revealing clothes, and had some say in her choice of underwear, and the second meant I got to see her in the new bikini she’d just bought. Or rather, I’d just bought, as she had little money and I had a paroxysm of gallantry, totally unselfishly motivated by the thought of lying next to her on the beach wearing nothing except two scraps of fabric. Yeah, the ‘being flexible’ was going well. The ‘helping objectively without my dick coming between us’? Not so much. Must try harder. And stop the double entendres, they’re not helping.

So the first couple of days, we just mooched around, seeing bits of Devon, eating cream teas, oohing at the scenery, aahing at the sunsets. I didn’t mention Martin, Carrie didn’t mention Martin, but I saw him flit across her face sometimes, maybe when she saw a couple with their arms round each other, or other seemingly random moments, I don’t know, maybe there was something on a menu that he really liked, or maybe she saw the brand of muscle vests he wore or some such shit.

We didn’t go and see Jay and Beth until the Tuesday. Beth was best taken in small doses, fairly far apart, or the urge to strangle her could become overpowering. I sometimes didn’t know how Jay did it, but knowing my brother, most of it washed over him. They were undoubtedly made for each other.

But anyway, Tuesday. Carrie and I had done the beach, twice. We’d done the moors, me finding out delightedly that Carrie did hiking, and thus buying us both walking boots in a miraculous BOGOF offer in the local Millets. We’d had more cream teas than you could wave a jam spoon at, and we’d been to Paignton Zoo, where we’d been fleeced at the entrance, and continued to be fleeced by the inside prices, where loads of miserable looking animals were out of their element, bored and cold. At least, that was my take on it. Carrie thought everything was ‘adorable’, especially the penguins, who at least didn’t look cold, but were conversely potentially at risk of heat stroke. And of course, I thought that made her adorable, so everything was alright. And we’d stayed in to dinner in the expensive posh hotel twice, once in the restaurant and once with room service, so we could eat in our bathrobes and spill pasta sauce down our fronts without worrying.

We’d talked about nothing, and everything, or rather everything except the elephant in the room, and got to know each other much better. Carrie was smart, with a dry sense of humour and a sassy outlook on life. This, combined with her general hotness, just made me like her even more. It was no longer just a physical attraction; you may have noticed I was more than a little infatuated before. I think it would be fair to say that, although I had always in the past kept well away from any verb beginning with L applying to any woman I was involved with, I could think of at least three that applied to Carrie. And the first two were ‘Like’ and ‘Lust’. And the third ended in ‘ove’.

So here we were, walking up the path to Jay’s front door, which opened to eject a hurrying Dec just as we were about to ring the bell.

‘Hey. Alright?’

It was definitely a question this time, but one that didn’t require an answer.

‘Yeah, man.’

Who did I think I was? In my head it sounded cool, but out of my mouth, it sounded the lamest of old man lame. I barely caught the smirk as he raced off down the path, but it was there, and it stung a bit.

‘Bloody young whippersnapper.’

‘Yeah, cos that’s a way cooler thing to say.’

I looked appraisingly at Carrie, who seemed to have read it all pretty accurately. Well at least my plan of her getting to know me seemed to be working, even if she was getting to know the bits I’d really rather keep to myself.

The door was still open, swinging in the aftermath of Hurricane Declan, and we walked through, calling out as we did so.

‘Oh, hi you two. Lovely to see you again, this is a treat, Matty, twice in one week. You will come again before you leave, won’t you? Come and sit down, tell me what you’ve been doing with yourselves.’

We sat on one of the sofas and talked to Beth about the last couple of days, laughing as we showed her some of the pictures I’d taken on my phone. She made suggestions for more places to see before we left, and then put her serious nursey face on. I’d seen it before, when she talked to Mum, or talked to me about Mum. I wanted to warn Carrie, but without saying something or gripping her hand, it was impossible.

‘So, Carrie, how is everything? Have you heard from your boyfriend?’

I knew she’d had texts and voicemails, wasn’t sure if she’d replied, or spoken to him directly. I might be about to find out.

‘He’s bombarded me a bit with texts and calls. I didn’t know whether to answer or not, I don’t want him to know where I am, he’ll just come down here and start causing trouble. I called him last night, just to tell him to stop calling.’

‘Uh huh.’ Beth kept her tone of voice neutral, but I wondered if she wanted to yell ‘you stupid girl’ like I did.

‘How did that go?’

‘Oh, he just got upset. All the texts, voicemails, he was saying sorry, he knew he’d gone over the top, he wouldn’t do it again, please come back. He said the same on the phone, but he … actually cried. He’s … I’ve never heard him cry before. He asked if I’d gone for good.’

‘What did you tell him, sweetheart?’

I tried not to stare too fiercely at her, but she glanced in my direction, and shrank away from me, so I probably didn’t succeed.

‘I said I was still thinking. I am still thinking. It’s been great being down here, I’ve had a lot of space and time, Matt’s been great.’

‘You didn’t fucking tell him that did you?’

‘No, silly, I didn’t mention you, I didn’t say where I was. He thinks I’m still in Stafford somewhere, from what he said.’

‘Carrie, it sounds like you’ve done some thinking. I don’t know if you’ve come to any conclusions, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a social worker, and she gave me some information on domestic violence –’

‘What? No, he hasn’t been violent, never.’

‘Just hear me out, sweetheart. You told me on Saturday that he pinched you and pulled your hair, and Matty said he told you that you weren’t to go out unless it was with him.’

Carrie didn’t answer, but nodded, staring mutinously at Beth.

‘Would it be fair to say he says things to you that don’t make you feel very good about yourself? That he blames you when things go wrong for him? And that being around him scares you sometimes?’

Another nod, the gaze dropped to her knees.

‘Have you ever left him before?’

‘Once, about eighteen months ago.’

‘Why?’

I saw Carrie’s jaw clench, realised a serious nerve had been touched, and although I was in awe of Beth’s way of getting to the heart of the matter within half an hour of us arriving, I hated seeing Carrie upset.

‘Beth, can’t we just leave this for now?’

‘How long for, Matty? Until she goes back to him again? Carrie, I know this is hard, and in the end it’s up to you, of course. I’ve brought you some information.’

Beth stood up and pulled some bits of paper from a drawer, walked over and handed them to Carrie, who took them as if they were an unexploded grenade.

‘Have a look at it, it might help a bit more with deciding what to do. Basically, it says that there are all sorts of abuse, or violence if that’s what you want to call it, and the seemingly little things all add up. The abuser wants control, and will do anything to get it, especially promising to change. He might even mean it at the time, but he’ll definitely say it if it gets you back there, where he can control you again. I’m willing to bet he said he’d change when you left last time.’

‘Martin’s not an abuser.’

Carrie spat the word out like it was poison. Her face closed down, and I don’t think she was listening to anything Beth said after that.

‘OK, well, have a read of that lot and see if you still agree afterwards. I’m happy, perfectly happy, for you to tell me I’m wrong, that he doesn’t tick all or even any of the boxes, but please promise me you’ll look at it.’

Carrie nodded and stuffed the pamphlets and information leaflets in her bag, then leaned back against the sofa, arms folded and legs crossed. It was the end of the matter for her, for now, possibly forever. I wasn’t sure if Beth had pushed things too far; only time would tell.

Seeming unruffled, Beth changed tack.

‘Are you two going to stay for dinner?’

‘Oh, er …’ I looked at Carrie, who shrugged. ‘Maybe, if you promise not to get all heavy on our arses again.’

‘Alright, Matty, no more heavy. Promise. I’ve made a lasagne, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert.’

‘Well I’m sold. Carrie, Beth is a really good cook. Even if her well-intentioned advice is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, her culinary touch is as light as a feather.’

I looked over at Carrie as she tutted and rolled her eyes at me.

‘You really have the gift of the gab, Scotty, don’t you.’

‘Oh, no no, you can’t call me Scotty, that’s what all the rugger buggers call Jay. Can’t have our two worlds colliding, the universe would implode.’

‘Total gab. Alright, thanks Beth, dinner sounds great.’

So we stayed, and chatted, and played with Cal, and Jay came home demanding feeding and beer, and family life went on around us as Beth got dinner ready, then chatted to us while she folded laundry, and Jay turned the TV on to watch a sports channel.

I checked Carrie silently a few times, but she seemed outwardly alright. I hoped I could talk to her later, maybe look at some of the information with her if she’d let me.

Dinner was, as usual with Beth’s cooking, delicious. Dec put in an appearance, shovelling the lasagne in his face faster than I would have thought humanly possible, not speaking as he was using his mouth for more important things. Beth asked him a few questions, but had obviously learned that they had to require yes or no answers, as he only nodded or shook his head to reply. He got up from the table before the sticky toffee pudding, as soon as his last mouthful had been dispatched, before he’d even swallowed it.

‘Er, Mr Summers.’

Jay’s voice had a paternal scolding tone to it I’d never heard before.

‘Mm?’

It was the only answer possible with a half-chewed mouthful of lasagne.

‘Plate please. Beth doesn’t spend all day cooking for you so you can make her clear up after you too.’

The mouthful was swallowed.

‘Sorry, Beth.’

Dec picked his plate, glass and cutlery up and took it into the kitchen. There was the sound of a dishwasher being loaded, then the other door to the kitchen opening and closing, footsteps going upstairs, then some music from above. I looked at Jay.

‘Impressive.’

‘What?’

‘Discipline. Never thought you had it in you.’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

‘James, honestly.’

Beth indicated Cal with her eyes.

‘Sorry.’

‘Ha ha, I see you’re not the only one dishing out the rules. Seriously, though, nice work with the adolescent. When I first met him I thought he was a rude, sullen, ignorant git.’

‘Matty.’

‘What?’

I reviewed the words I’d used.

‘Oh, sorry, ignorant, er, sorry Beth, can’t think of any words that aren’t rude to describe him. But he seems to have really come along. He’s progressed to uncommunicative and unsociable. Nice work.’

‘He has changed a lot. Not sure it’s down to me. More to do with Beth.’

‘He’s had a tough start to life, Matty. You know both his parents died? He just needed some stability, a few house rules.’

‘So how long is he here for, then? It must be more than a year already.’

Beth and Jay looked at each other.

‘There’s no timescale, really, he can be here as long as he wants, or needs to be.’

‘Holy, er, cow. Are you adopting him or something?’

‘No, Matty, nothing like that. He just fits with us, don’t you think?’

‘Er, OK, if you say so.’

‘Well we all like him, don’t we Cal?’

‘What Mummy?’

Cal looked up from his bowl of pudding, where he had been making trails with the sticky toffee sauce.

‘Say ‘pardon’, not ‘what’, sweetheart. We all like Dec, don’t we?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Tell Unca Matty what happens most nights before you go to bed.’

‘I clean my teeth and do a wee.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, but what does Dec do?’

‘Dec reads me a story.’

‘Seriously, Cal? He can speak more than two words at one time? Whoa.’

‘Stop it, Matty. Don’t belittle things you don’t understand. Dec and Cal get on really well together, they teach each other a lot, and have a lot of fun together too. You know what teenagers are like, unfamiliar people send them into themselves.’

‘OK, point taken.’

Although I thought to myself that if Dec went much more into himself he’d disappear up his own teenage arse, but as had just been pointed out to me, what the fuck did I know about it?

Dinner eaten, dishwasher stacked by Carrie and me (because, you know, Beth didn’t spend all day cooking so we could make her clear up after us too), and coffee on the go, we sat down in the living room again. Carrie started doing exaggerated yawns while we were drinking the coffee, and I got the hint after the third one.

‘Maybe it’s time we were off. We’ve got a lot of pay-per-view movies to catch up with on your credit card, Jay. Thanks for that, by the way. Almost makes up for having you grinning down at me from every angle except the fucking ceiling.’

‘Matty.’

‘What? Cal’s not even in here.’

‘That’s not the point. The rule is, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, that seems to be working well for everyone.’

I rolled my eyes at Beth’s ridiculous rules. Jay said ‘fuck’ all the time and hardly seemed to notice when Beth berated him, and in all likelihood Cal would be swearing before he got to infant school, so she might as well give up now. To prove my point, Jay wasn’t even listening, being too busy laughing at his little prank with the Scott Suite.

‘Ha ha, sorry, mate, just couldn’t resist. It’s not exactly on my credit card, it’s just, when they named the suite after me, they said I could have it for free anytime I liked. I’ve never used it before. Seemed too good to pass up.’

‘Maybe you should have offered it to Mum. She’d love saying goodnight to all your photos, I bet she does every night anyway.’

‘Nah, Mum prefers staying in Dec’s stinking pit where she can see my real handsome face first thing in the morning.’

‘I bet she leaves her glasses off until you’ve been up a couple of hours though, otherwise it’d be a bit of a shock to the system.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

‘Oh, nowhere near as hilarious as you. The Scott Suite. Does Mum even know?’

‘Er, no. I was too embarrassed to tell her. I suppose it’s too much to ask you to keep it to yourself?’

‘Oh way way too much. I’ve taken pictures of the whole caboodle, it’ll make my year to show her when I get back.’

‘How is Carol, Matty? I spoke to her last week, and she sounded a bit down.’

I actually hadn’t seen Mum for a while, having been busy at work, and preoccupied with how I was going to break up with Merce. It all seemed a long time ago. I’d texted her a few times, but Mum never texted back, and would never leave a message to say she wasn’t OK. I felt guilty all of a sudden. When I got back to Stafford, I would need to make amends.

‘Oh, er, to be honest I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s upset her.’

‘A couple of weeks, Matty? That’s not like you.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve been busy with stuff. I don’t always get over there as much as I’d like.’

‘Stuff like … yoga classes?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Time to go, yeah, Carrie?’

With Jay’s laugh ringing in my ears, I stood up and walked out, making sure I trod on his foot as I walked past, in the best tradition of brothers. Beth shook her head at us and opened the front door to let us out.

‘Thanks for dinner, Beth, remarkable as always.’

‘Come again, won’t you, before you go back. Carrie – I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. Please, just have a look at the leaflets?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything. I kissed Beth on the cheek, and we drove back to the hotel.

‘Are you really tired, or was all that yawning just code for ‘get me out of here, if Jay belches one more time I’m going to throw up’?’

‘I’m a bit tired, but if you want to watch a film, I’ll stay up with you. I can always doze off in front of Alan Rickman. Steven Seagal might be a bit harder.’

‘I wondered if you wanted to have a look at that stuff Beth gave you.’

Carrie gave me a pained look.

‘Not tonight.’

‘Any night?’

‘I don’t know. Don’t go on. You keep saying it’s my choice, then putting me under pressure.’

This was a little unfair, seeing as this was the first time I’d brought the subject up all week, but I let it go, recognising that she was feeling fragile.

‘Not intentionally. I just want to make sure you’re happy.’

‘Mm. Matt, if I went back to Martin, what would you do?’

My heart felt like it had dropped onto the floor.

3. The things we do for love

In which we meet Carrie, and Matty shows us the lengths he will go to in order to impress her.

Matt

I loved my job at a new, small, independent firm specialising in IT consultancy and systems analysis. They had started modestly, but had big ambitions starting in Stafford, then branching out via the rest of the Midlands towards world domination. I loved the people, I worked hard and quickly made it up the ranks, and I stayed longer than I intended because I was enjoying it.

My plans to leave meant I could still live a commitment-free life, as I wasn’t going to be staying, so why get involved too deeply with anything, or anyone? I stayed with Mum when I first came back, but soon got my own small flat and lived the single guy’s life. I spent longer than was healthy playing PlayStation and Xbox games; I went to clubs and met women, I slept with them, I saw a few of them more than once, but never more than half a dozen times. Some of the women I came across were girls I’d known at school, and I rather immodestly enjoyed watching them work out who I was, remember what I’d been like back then, and do a double-take.

I had a lot of friends, some from work, some from the walking group I went to when I needed a good hike, some from the local chess club, drinking buddies, football buddies, people I’d met at parties, people from all walks of life. Finally, Matt Scott actually had a life. Every few months I’d look at the job pages and think about leaving, and then decide to give it a bit longer; I was enjoying myself too much to want to change just then, but suddenly I looked up and nigh on four years had gone by.

Then one day I was at Mum’s, for Sunday lunch, which I did every few weeks, now I had my own place. I was in her living room flicking through the uninspiring channel selection on her pretty ancient TV, when I heard a shout and a crash from the kitchen. I ran through, to find her in the middle of a lake of gravy with the remains of a gravy boat smashed into it and a saucepan on its side.

‘Mum! Are you OK?’

She looked shocked – pale and a bit trembly – and I pulled out a chair for her to sit on while I fetched a mop and bucket to clear up. She still hadn’t answered me when I started mopping.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes dear.’

‘What happened?’

I was getting a bit freaked out by her just sitting there looking at me, and was trying to get her to talk to me.

‘Oh, I was just pouring the gravy into the gravy boat, and … I don’t know what happened, my wrist just gave way.’

‘Has it happened before?’

‘Not with gravy. But it is hard lifting saucepans these days. It’s just the arthritis.’

‘Just the what?’

She had said absolutely nothing to me about it before.

‘Arthritis, dear. Makes things a bit painful sometimes.’

My mum was one of the most stoic people I knew. She wasn’t Scottish, but she’d lived in Scotland most of her life before moving down to Stafford when she married my father, who was Scottish, and I was sure she had assimilated some of the dourness. If she said things were a bit painful sometimes, I could only guess at how much things were really hurting a lot of the time. I didn’t know much about arthritis, but I intended to find out.

‘Fucking hell, Mum. Have you seen a doctor?’

‘Language, Matthew. Yes of course I have.’

‘And?’

‘And what?’

I put the mop back in the bucket and looked at her, forcing her to look up at me.

‘And what did the sodding doctor say?’

‘That I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis and I have to put up with it. They gave me some tablets and some splint things, but I don’t really think I need to wear them.’

‘Shit. Why didn’t you say something? At least ask me to do the bloody gravy or something.’

‘Well you’re not always here, dear, I can’t call you every time I need to pour something out of a saucepan, can I?’

‘You know you can, you can call me anytime, whenever you need anything.’

She gave me a wistful smile.

‘You’re a good boy, but you know I can’t, you’ve got your own life. I’m fine, really dear, don’t worry about me.’

I snorted in frustration.

‘Oh OK, then, I won’t worry at all. You just tell me you’ve got some bloody arthritis thing, and you’ve trashed your kitchen floor because you dropped a shitload of boiling hot gravy all over it, and it could have been all over you, that’s not going to make me worry in the slightest. Fucking hell Mum, were you ever going to tell me?’

‘Matthew, really. Stop swearing.’

‘Yeah, Mum, that’s what we need to be focussing on here is my fucking language. Aren’t there people who can help, give you, oh I don’t know, saucepan tippers or some such shit? Or maybe, use the splint things when you’re lifting saucepans. Or don’t use saucepans. Maybe have something easier to cook, frozen pizza or microwave lasagne or something.’

‘Honestly, you make it sound like I’m ready for my grave.’

‘Well you might be if you carry on dropping hot liquid all over yourself.’

‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’

And so we carried on arguing, back and forth, Mum not willing to concede that she might need any help at all, me getting more and more frustrated by her obstinacy. People who know me well will doubtless be having a small chuckle to themselves at the irony. Some of the astute among you may be able to discern a genetic trait. Us Scotts are a stubborn lot, it’s bred into us and we all learn it from each other and reinforce it as time goes on. Nature and nurture, side by side.

At any rate, that put paid to any thoughts of me moving away. Mum needed someone nearby to keep an eye on her, to offer covert suggestions of ways life could be easier, to cook her the odd meal when she’d let me, with lots of microwaveable leftovers to freeze, to run the hoover round because I’d ‘had mud on my shoes’, to dig the garden because it really was too much for her and she was at least prepared to admit that.

I talked to Jay about her, but there wasn’t much he could do from afar. He was miles away in the south west, he was just about to get married to Beth, and he played rugby. It always came down to that. He had little free time during the season, and was tied to a two year contract, so, as much as he at least said ‘if there’s anything I can do’, it was down to me to make sure Mum was OK. He also said I shouldn’t put my life on hold to look after her, and that it wasn’t what she would want, if she knew, but I disregarded that as not his business; he had different priorities to me, and a different relationship with Mum.

I reassessed my future, which had been pretty much an open book and a one way ticket to the rest of the world up till then, but had now narrowed to Stafford, or one of the other Midlands towns where Eyeti, the company I worked for, was planning to expand to. I mourned it, to myself, what could have been, but it wasn’t ever really a choice. I straightened my shoulders, lifted my chin, stopped looking at the spectacular jobs on offer in Europe, the States and the Middle East, and decided that my adventure was going to be to see how far I could go with Eyeti. I might make it as far as Solihull, if I was lucky.

Reassessing my future, and realising I was going to be staying put for the foreseeable, meant reassessing other things, like relationships, friendships, what I did and who I did it with. I didn’t consciously decide this, but found I was spending my time differently, putting down roots, making plans further than just a few months ahead. I started thinking about the women I went out with as potential partners, although I was still an excellent no-strings lay, but there was sometimes a strange sense of regret when I called it off, a vague haunting remnant of what might have been. And Stafford isn’t huge – I won’t say I’d shagged every woman in town, as that would be a downright lie, and with a population of over a hundred thousand people, a physical impossibility, but I was running into the same faces in clubs, at parties, in pubs, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

So I went on a few holidays, wild times, kind of 18-30 type of thing. Drank myself shit-faced and shagged myself sore for two weeks at a time, then came back and fended off all the texts and emails from women I’d been stupid enough to give my real details to in a drunken stupor. More than one tried to convince me I’d asked her to marry me, and one tried to convince me she was pregnant.

That terrified me, and it took a lot of driving to and from Canterbury, where she lived, before she finally confessed she’d made it up. Breathing a long, deep sigh of relief, I swore off fuckfest holidays and took myself down to Devon to spend a week with Jay and his new wife Beth, in the hope that the change of scene would reset me.

Beth was a force of nature. She was a nurse, and bossy with it. She demanded all the details of Mum’s arthritis, promised to put her in touch with a specialist she knew in the Midlands, phoned Social Services to arrange a visit, really sorted stuff out. I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn’t got my arse into gear and done some of the same things, but I didn’t have Beth’s contacts, her knowledge, or her direct way of confronting a problem. Beth also didn’t know Mum very well, and could pretend she didn’t know how proud Mum was, or how stubborn, and used this to ride roughshod over any protests.

Beth was good for Jay. She organised him, bullied him, told him what to do, and he just rolled over and did it with no protest. They’d met, unsurprisingly, in the local hospital, when Jay had been part of the Raiders’ Christmas visit to the children’s ward. Beth had taken the initiative and asked for his number, and Jay probably didn’t know what had hit him after that.

I remembered his previous girlfriend, Lisa, who was a lot younger than him, a few years younger than me even. She’d had the same up front manner, but Jay didn’t stand for it coming from someone so young, and it didn’t work out. Beth definitely took charge of Jay, which seemed to be what he wanted and needed. I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted or needed, but it seemed nobody got a choice where Beth was concerned. She was good to talk to, when she wasn’t bossing me about, and I chatted to her quite a lot while I was there about how things were going for me.

‘James told me you’d thought of going abroad.’

‘Yeah, but I’m staying put for now.’

‘Does your mum know?’

‘That I was looking for jobs in another country? No. It was only a thought.’

‘James says you’re pretty good at what you do.’

‘Does he? How would he know?’

‘He’s proud of you. Could you see yourself moving away?’

‘Not at the moment.’

‘You don’t think you’ll regret it later?’

‘Who ever knows what they’ll feel later? I have to do what’s right now.’

‘Are you happy?’

‘Yeah. I’ve got good friends, do lots of things I enjoy and I like my job. Can’t say fairer than that.’

‘As long as you don’t say never, and resent things that you could have changed.’

See what I mean? She was pretty relentless, and never backed off from saying what she felt.

I’d been to their wedding a year or so earlier, and it was a huge affair, with lots of personalities from the rugby world in attendance. I wasn’t Jay’s best man, not even close, hadn’t even considered that he might ask me, so wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t. But the whole event made me think, just for a minute, about whether I was happy being an excellent no-strings lay, or whether I wanted something else, something with more strings attached, something like Jay had with Beth. Then I shook myself out of it, snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up, didn’t call her, and carried on with life as I knew it.

I’d been back in Stafford for four or five years when I met Carrie. I was getting tired of the same old round of pubs, clubs, football matches and work, the same faces, the same conversations, so I decided to mix things up a bit and try something new that didn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol and scary texts from women I barely remembered.

I scoured the local paper for evening classes available at the local school, and decided to go for taster sessions in Yoga, Glass Painting and Italian for Beginners. I also signed up for some weekend National Trust volunteering in a fit of green ardour. I didn’t make it past the first five minutes of the first class, which happened to be yoga.

Carrie was teaching the class, and I was smitten as soon as I clapped eyes on her. She was medium height, had blonde shoulder length hair, bright blue eyes and a really toned body, with a tight top that left little to the imagination. I’d never thought yoga was my thing, but as soon as I saw Carrie, I realised it was what my life had been crying out for all this time.

Cal

Let me tell you about the important people in my life:

Dec. Declan Summers. Charlie Collier. I never knew him as Charlie, but plenty of people did, apparently, back in the day. He’s the reason everything’s screwy, but in a good way. Right, I’m going to try to explain it.

Dec is not related to any of us, well except his own kids, obviously. I don’t remember a time before he was around, part of the family, but I guess you don’t remember things not being, you just remember things being, don’t you? He came to live with us when he was sixteen and I was two. He’s like my brother, he might as well be my brother, it’s just he’s not officially my brother. He’s kind of like my dad’s brother too, and like Matty’s brother, and I suppose that’s ironic, because he hasn’t got any real brothers, as far as we know. In fact, he hasn’t got any real family, if you count ‘real’ as ‘blood relatives’ (not that he’s ever let anyone even talk about trying to find his birth family) but this huge family of all of us, related and not, has kind of grown up around him, pulled in by him, glued together by him. Oh, and Dec is married to Amy, and they’ve got four children: Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, who are my kind of cousins. And I suppose I can’t talk about Dec without mentioning Rose, who also wasn’t related to any of us, but was like Dec’s mum, so was kind of like my gran, kind of like everyone’s gran, oh, see, it’s all getting bloody confusing. Let’s move swiftly on to something easier.

Matty. Matt Scott. Matty was my uncle, my dad’s brother. It’s still hard to say ‘was’ about Matty, because I don’t think I’ll ever be used to him being gone. Matty and the truly remarkable Lau, had two children, Josh and Ella, who are my bona fide cousins.

Nico Tiago. Nico was my childhood hero, he is one of my dad’s best friends and he helped save Dec, back in the day. Nico is from Argentina, and he’s married to Lis, who actually used to go out with Dad in Mediaeval times, and their son is Bastien. Nico and Lis’s son, not Dad and Lis. Dad and Lis don’t have a son. Stop making things complicated, it’s already bad enough. So they’re not ‘real’ family either, but Bastien and Ella – well just wait and see. We all call Bastien Basty, when we’re being nice, and Bastyard when we want to see him go red and get that little crease over his nose where he’s frowning and about to swear in Spanish.

I’ve got two grannies, but I don’t see Nana Jane that much because she lives in the States. Granny Carol is Dad’s mum. April is Lau’s mum and Diane is Amy’s mum, and they’ve been pretty good sort of kind of almost grannies to us all too. No grandads left, which is sad. Oh, unless you count my dad, who is obviously Conor and Lily’s grandad. This family isn’t big on keeping dads, so I should be grateful I’ve still got mine.

I think that’s it for family, unless there’s someone I’ve missed, there always seem to be tons of us everywhere. I suppose I’ve got a couple of aunties, Mum’s sisters, but we don’t see them that much, mainly because they both annoy my dad a lot.

I’ve been pretty lucky that I can count my family among my friends, especially now I’m older, but I have had some awesome mates along the way, and although they don’t really need explaining like my family, I’ll mention them now anyway, so you get used to their names before they crop up.

Baggo. Jake Bagwell. Baggo has been my best mate since the first day of school. We’ve helped each other into and out of so many scrapes, not all of them when we were kids, either. Baggo’s still enjoying the single life, and although we thought he’d got there once, he may just not be cut out for settling down.

Ayesha Chaudhry. I thought I was going to marry Ayesh, but it turns out I was just going to cause her pain instead. She is an incredible woman, and I am proud to call her and her chap, Sam, my friends.

That’s it for now. It’s a bit like the beginning of those Shakespeare plays we used to have to read at school in English – the list of the main characters with a bit about them, but trying not to give away spoilers. Not that anyone reading this won’t already know the end, if there’s going to be an end. It’s not like it’s some kind of murder mystery, it’s just writing things down from my point of view.

 

Matt

I was shit at yoga. Couldn’t figure out my Downward Dog from my Cobra, kept falling over, my legs and arms seemingly unable to obey a single command from my brain, but it made her look at me and smile, so I did it more. At the end of the class I sauntered over, planning to try out my excellent no-strings lay techniques on her, but before I could talk to her, some musclebound git in a gym vest, cut-off cargoes and the latest Nikes, burst through the door, hugged her and stuck his tongue down her throat. She pushed him away, laughing, then noticed me.

‘Oh hi, er, Matt isn’t it? Did you enjoy the class?’

‘Yeah, very much so.’

Although now I was beginning to regret staying behind, as muscle boy was lingering, scowling, undoubtedly recognising my intentions, and it was going to seriously hamper my methods to have him lurking while I made my moves.

‘Great. Well, we’re here from next Thursday at seven, so see you then?’

I recognised a dismissal when I heard one, but was determined to make my mark, so chose to ignore it.

‘Well maybe I’ll try to stay upright next week.’

‘Ha ha, good plan. You’ll get there, lots of people struggle the first few weeks.’

Muscle boy chose to interrupt.

‘Are you nearly done, Carrie? Our table’s booked for half nine.’

‘Yeah, sure. Sorry, Matt, I need to lock up here. It’s our anniversary.’

‘Oh, OK, cool, have a good one.’

Bugger. Not only was he a muscle boy, she’d been with him for long enough to have an anniversary. I graciously conceded defeat for now, but was determined to resume the battle next Thursday. It gave me a whole week to plan my strategy. I nodded at muscle boy, who stared stonily back at me and left them to lock up.

It was a long, long, time since I’d felt like this, like my whole life revolved around one person, one person who sneaked into my thoughts even when I believed I was thinking about other things. The last time was Cindy. Now Carrie was there, at the back of my mind when she wasn’t at the front of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, I even practised yoga moves at home so she might be impressed at the next class. I bloody hated yoga, there’s no way I would have considered going back under any other circumstances. I was lost.

Several more weeks of yoga didn’t see me making much progress in either poise and flexibility, or Project Carrie, although I was heartened by the absence of muscle boy. I tried hanging around after class, but lots of other people had questions for her, and I didn’t like being too obvious; it would have put a real spanner in the works to be told to sod off before I’d got anywhere. I was going to bide my time and wait for the right moment. I was sure it would come. It wasn’t like she didn’t look at me sometimes, and if I wasn’t mistaken, her gaze sometimes held mine a split second longer than was strictly necessary. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t a complete write-off either.

Then, in one of those moments of pure karma, which I naturally don’t believe in, but having been to five whole yoga classes I now at least knew how to spell, the moment was there to be seized.

I was taking an early lunch, on my way to meet an Eyeti client. I’d just sat at a table in my favourite Lebanese café in town, one of Stafford’s few interesting places to eat, and was ordering a spicy falafel wrap, when I saw her. I had to look twice, as I’d never seen Carrie out of her yoga gear, or with her hair up, but it was definitely her, dressed in a businessy shirt and with her hair kind of twisted up and held in a clip. But I didn’t really pay much attention to her appearance, as the first thing I noticed about her was that she was crying.

Now, I really don’t do women crying. Can’t handle it at all, get tongue tied, say pathetically fuckwitted things, tend to leave well alone. But she was breaking her heart, and everyone else in the café was ignoring her, and maybe I should have as well, but I just couldn’t. I walked over and sat down opposite her.

‘Carrie?’

She looked up, a horrified expression appearing on her face when she realised someone she knew had sat at her table. She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and hurriedly wiped her eyes. It didn’t noticeably diminish the red blotchiness, but did remove some of the smeared mascara.

‘What’s wrong?’

She tried a smile, plastered it over the top of the misery.

‘Oh, hi. Nothing, just had a shit morning.’

‘Anything I can do?’

She shook her head, her face crumpling and more tears falling from her eyes. I reached out and touched her hand, which was full of damp tissue. She pulled away and held both of her hands over her face, hiding from me. I waited. Eventually, she stopped sniffling, and moved her hands away from her face to rummage for more tissues. She didn’t look up, but spoke into her bag.

‘I’m OK, honestly. I was supposed to be meeting someone, but I got a text and oh bloody hellfire I thought I’d put a clean one in here.’

The lack of un-snot ridden tissues seemed to be a defining moment in the morning’s woes for her, as she started crying again in earnest. I thought hard about whether to stay there, only to add to it all when I eventually uttered my anticipated fuckwitted comment, but it felt worse to just get up and go back to my table. Besides, the waiter had brought over my falafel wrap, assuming I was now dining with the weeping woman.

‘Carrie, sorry if I seem a tad impertinent –’ see? Instant fuckwittery. Who says shit like ‘a tad impertinent’ except me? ‘– but you don’t actually seem to be OK. You seem to be quite upset. Tell me to piss off if you like, but if you need some company, or a share of my falafel wrap, which I have to say smells bloody gorgeous, I’ll be here, at your table for the next fifteen minutes or so. Oh, and you can use my serviette as a tissue if you want.’

She didn’t tell me to piss off, but didn’t communicate in any other way, either, for a few minutes. Then she looked up, briefly into my eyes, then down to the serviette, which she took and rubbed at her eyes again.

I carried on eating my wrap – I was hungry, and despite my offer, wasn’t about to wait for her to decide whether she was in or out of its spicy goodness – and after a few minutes, I heard her take a deep breath, saw her straighten her shoulders, then heard her mutter, kind of under her breath, but loud enough that she must have known I would hear.

‘Bloody mothers and fucking boyfriends, more trouble than they’re bloody worth.’

I looked up from my lunch and saw her regarding me with a steely blue stare, as if daring me to disagree.

‘I’m with you. Never had a bloody mother-fucking boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth.’

Her eyes narrowed. As I was saying it, trying to be all smart-arsey, I realised how it sounded, but decided to pretend I was being deliberately ambiguous.

‘Are you gay?’

So she was pretty direct; not a bad thing. At least we were likely to know where we stood.

‘No.’

‘But you said –’

‘I said I’ve never had a boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth. It’s true, but only because I’ve never had a boyfriend. And am extremely unlikely to ever have one, just so we’re clear.’

She rolled her eyes, but the tiny hint of a smile that lifted the corners of her mouth made the crap joke and the embarrassing explanation seem worth it.

‘Oh. Yeah, I was just a bit surprised, to be honest, because I thought you’d been – oh never mind.’

‘You thought I’d been what?’

‘I said never mind. It’s not like you’d be the first bloke to think he was in with a chance because he tried to look cute falling on his arse in my yoga class.’

‘You think I’ve got a cute arse?’

This flustered her for a moment, but she rallied.

‘You’ve certainly got a cute mouth. Matt, isn’t it?’

Oh nicely done, Carrie. Take the wind out of my sails by pretending you’re not sure of my name, even though I haven’t been able to get yours out of my mind for the last few weeks.

‘Yeah. But you can call me Cute Arse. Probably do, in the privacy of your own home, for all I know. I expect you give us all nicknames – mine is obviously as previously stated, I bet the largeish red haired lady is Sweaty Betty, the chap who stands at the back is Bow-legged Bob, the airhead who jumps around in her electric blue Reeboks is Joined the Wrong Class –’

‘You’re a bit judgemental aren’t you.’

Her words were harsh, but there was still that hint of a smile on her mouth, which curved upwards in a very pleasing shape. I could easily imagine kissing that mouth. Had done, quite a few times, already.

‘No judging going on, just my memory system. Once I know everyone’s real names, their nicknames fade away. Like, Sandra – middle-aged mumsy type – she was Softly Spoken, because it was really hard to hear what she was saying, then when I finally caught her name, she was Softly Spoken Sandra, because of the sibilance, now she’s just Sandra. But I was talking about your nicknames. Don’t tell me you don’t do it, I’ve got friends who are teachers, and you all do it.’

‘Well alright, you got me. It’s hard to resist, and sometimes it’s funny telling Martin about people and calling them Busty Babs or whatever –’

‘There’s a Busty Babs? I can’t imagine how I didn’t notice her. Point her out on Thursday, please.’

‘Ha ha, she was from last year, she hasn’t turned up this term.’

‘And Martin is?’

Although I guessed he was muscle boy, and the ‘fucking boyfriend’ who had caused all the recent grief and mascara streaks.

‘You met him. My boyfriend. My so-called boyfriend.’

I liked the sound of Martin as a so-called boyfriend. It had potential.

‘Anything important he has, like his second cousin’s birthday or racing his stupid cars, I have to be there, rain or shine, no excuses. I had this job interview, he was supposed to meet me for lunch, it went really, really badly, like the godmother of all bad interviews, and all I wanted was to tell him about it so he could tell me it’s OK, I’ll get the next one, the job was shit, they didn’t deserve me anyway, but no. Something came up at the bloody gym. I don’t know, giving away a free muscle with every two kilometres on the treadmill or something. But anyway he just blows me off. By text. Didn’t even have the balls to phone, in case I got upset. Well guess what, Martin, I’m upset, but oh, that’s OK, because you don’t have to deal with it. Dickhead.’

‘It’s OK, you’ll get the next one, that one was shit, didn’t deserve you anyway.’

I wondered if she’d notice my subtle altering of her words, to encompass fucking boyfriends as well as jobs.

‘What?’

‘It seemed like you wanted someone to say it, so I said it.’

‘Oh. Well, thanks, but it’s not like it means as much coming from you, no offence, but you don’t know what the job was, or how good I would have been at it.’

There was a slight emphasis on the word ‘job’ that told me she’d noticed what I’d done, but had chosen to ignore it.

‘I’m sure you’d have been brilliant at … er …’

‘I bet you can’t even guess what it was.’

Bugger. Was I about to get myself into a real mess? Shoot too low and it’s like she doesn’t deserve anything decent, but shoot too high and – actually, what was wrong with shooting too high?

‘Brain surgeon?’

‘Try again. Still working on my brain surgery NVQ.’

‘Rocket scientist?’

‘NASA haven’t approved my CRB check yet. I think they might have spotted me running a red light from space or something.’

‘Headmistress of the world’s best yoga school?’

Sometimes, you can be really hung up on a girl, and imagine what she’s like, and fantasise about her, and then when you finally meet her, talk to her, even if she’s the hottest woman you’ve ever met, she can be dull as ditchwater, and it’s over before it’s begun. That so didn’t happen with Carrie. The more I talked to her, the more I liked her. Really liked, not just fancied. She was funny, bright, pretty, open, the whole package. Muscle boy Martin notwithstanding, I wanted her.

‘Now you’re just sucking up to teacher. Please don’t bring me an apple on Thursday. Receptionist.’

‘Receptionist?’

‘Yeah. So not even something worth getting upset over.’

‘Receptionist for who, or what?’

‘That new hotel on the ring road.’

‘Oh. Well, now I really can say that job was shit, they didn’t deserve you anyway. I know someone who worked there for a couple of weeks, not a receptionist, but in the office. They pay crap, expect long hours and unpaid overtime, and don’t give staff discount to their spa. And the manager is a wanker. So I’ve heard.’

‘Yeah, well, the manager is the one who told me my CV is a mess, I’m under-qualified and who looked me up and down like I was something nasty on the bottom of his shoe and told me I wasn’t smart enough.’

‘Like I said, wanker. There’ll be other jobs, Carrie.’

A look of desperation came over her face.

‘Well I bloody well hope so because I’ve been looking for a long time, and I need the money. I just can’t catch a break. The school is talking about changing the evening classes next year, focussing more on GCSEs and less on leisure stuff like yoga. If I lose my classes, I’ll really … I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be going on. Thanks, you’ve been great, listening to me moan. You must have somewhere to be.’

I looked at my watch. Even if I left right away I was going to be late for my appointment.

‘Do you mind if I send a quick text?’

She shook her head, and started to get her things together as I frantically sent a message to the company secretary asking her to call and make up an excuse to the client, and to say that I would be there as soon as possible.

‘I should get going anyway. Thanks for talking to me, you have actually cheered me up a bit.’

‘Aren’t you going to have any lunch?’

She shook her head. ‘I need to get back. Thanks, though. I’ll see you Thursday.’

And she stood up and was gone. I hadn’t even managed to get her phone number, and now I was even more hung up on her.

Thursday night couldn’t come soon enough. I ended up in the car park at the school half an hour before the class began, just because I couldn’t stand waiting around at home. Then I had to sit in my car, because I didn’t want to seem so loser-keen that I turned up any earlier than two minutes before it was due to start. Late would have been better, but would have meant less time in the presence of Carrie. Hopelessly lost. Or hopeless loser.

Carrie showed no sign that anything had passed between us in the preceding week. I’d thought that at least I would have got a smile, a nod, a small acknowledgement that I’d seen her in a less than happy frame of mind, and had, by her own admission, ‘cheered her up a bit’. But even my best pratfalls didn’t gain me much eye contact, and she was Ms Professional Yoga Instructor to all of us.

After the class, I spent as long as I could clearing my mat away, tying my laces, putting my hoody on, checking I had my wallet, in an attempt to be the last to leave, so I could at least ask if she was alright. It almost worked, as Bow-legged Bob (whose real name was Dave, but despite my claims, would always be Bow-legged Bob to me) finished talking to Carrie and left. As he was opening the door, however, he was almost knocked over by the hulking shape of muscle boy Martin, who filled the door frame and glowered at me while Bob aka Dave was trying to get past. Carrie looked up and saw him.

‘Oh, hey. I’m nearly done here, wait in the car for me?’

‘No, that’s OK. I’ll carry your stuff out if you like.’

Carrie looked at him tenderly, and I felt like punching him. Not that he would have felt it; he seemed to have muscles absolutely everywhere.

‘Aw, thanks babe.’

Ugh, and she called him babe. I despised pet names of any sort. And she hadn’t even noticed I was there. It was time to speak.

‘Thanks for tonight, Carrie, I think I might have finally got the hang of the Triangle.’

She smiled, not coldly but not warmly and just said, ‘See you next week.’

Which was much worse than before. It was a brush-off. I looked at Martin, and saw the challenge in his eyes.

‘Just try it,’ they said, ‘just fucking try it, mate.’

And I faltered a bit, because he was a lot bigger than me, and Carrie had shown slightly less than no interest, and I decided to leave it for this week.

Bwaak bwaak bwaak, yeah, I heard it too, the chicken noises in my head. Didn’t make any difference.

‘Yeah, next week.’

I walked out, trying to put as much casual into my step as I could muster as I headed out of the building. Two could play at that game. Trouble was, it suddenly felt like I was the only one playing the game, and it wasn’t much fun playing on your own. Maybe it was time to have a serious chat with myself, go clubbing, be the excellent no-strings lay, get her out of my system, get myself –

With a shove that knocked all the air out of me, I was slammed none too gently against the wall, my arm bent behind me pinning me in place and a mouth placed close to my ear. I tried to struggle out of it, but I couldn’t move. It didn’t hurt, but I was in no doubt that it could hurt, with just a little bit more pressure.

‘Fuck off and leave Carrie alone. Don’t come back to her class, if you know what’s good for you, Mr Cute Arse.’

I didn’t say anything, largely on account of having no air in my lungs. I tried another struggle, but was still held firmly; the muscles holding me knew exactly what they were doing. I had a sense of surreality, like I was in a bad movie. Certainly the words were from a rather poor script.

‘Did you hear me?’

It would have been hard not to without having a major hearing impairment, as he was speaking directly into my left ear. I nodded. It wasn’t an agreement to do as he said, just an acknowledgement that I’d heard, although he may have had a different take on it. Size and strength difference notwithstanding, I didn’t want Martin to win this one, even if it was on a technicality.

As suddenly as I’d been pinned, I was released, and when I turned round, Martin was walking towards Carrie, who had just come out of the school entrance, carrying all the stuff Martin had said he would carry for her. He put his arm round her and walked away, without looking back.

What is it with blokes like Martin that make them pull shit like that? Just before our little encounter, I’d been thinking about ways to put it all behind me, get her out of my system. It may have entailed leaving the class, I hadn’t got that far in my planning. If he had come up to me afterwards, tapped me on the shoulder, said ‘Excuse me mate, I can see you’re into Carrie, but she’s my girlfriend and I love her, so please just leave it’, I might have been persuaded, even if I wasn’t already on the verge of leaving it in my mind. But now, having been told what to do by a bully-boy meathead with a bicep where his brain should have been; now that he had filled me with adrenaline and testosterone, there was no way, no fucking way on this earth, I was going to be cowed. And he’d called me Mr Cute Arse, so unless he had a thing for my glutes, Carrie had told him about our conversation, and he hadn’t liked it, which made me think that maybe he wasn’t sure of her, and maybe there was a chance, just a chance. And maybe he’d got all overpowering and ‘if you know what’s good for you’ with her, and that thought made me feel protective. See? Blokes. Giant walking knobs, every one of us. Yeah, see you next week, Carrie.

So, it was Thursday, and there I was at the school again, a bit anxious about running into Martin, but confident that with a roomful of yoga classmates, nothing bad could really happen. Surely, after seven weeks of stretching and bending, we’d be more than a match for him en masse. Wouldn’t we? I wasn’t intending to stick around afterwards for a repeat performance, but my nerves were jangling a little nonetheless.

When Carrie walked in and saw me, her eyes widened, and something akin to fear flitted across her face, just for a split second. Then she carefully schooled her expression to class mode, and started the warm up. She gave me no eye contact throughout the entire class, took us through our paces, and finished bang on time. I don’t know what I had expected, but maybe a message of some sort in her eyes, a smile, a scowl, something.

As I had no intention of being around when muscle boy appeared after class, I hurriedly put my shoes on once Carrie had finished the warm down, plopped my mat on the pile, picked up my car keys and walked towards the door.

‘Matt?’

I turned round. It was Softly Spoken Sandra, annoyingly speaking loudly enough for me to hear and have to stop and answer her. Sod it, I wanted to be gone. I pasted a neutral expression on my face.

‘Yep.’

‘You’re a computer bod, aren’t you?’

Oh fuck, someone who wanted some free IT advice. Just turn it off and on again, pretty much always works.

‘You could say that.’

‘Do you know much about tablets – iPads and things?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Depends what you’re after.’

Hopefully nothing complicated that was going to take ages to explain in words of one syllable.

‘It’s my son’s twenty first birthday, and I’d like to get him something like that, but I just wondered if you had an opinion about the best sort to get.’

‘Well … I’ve got an iPad. All my own computer stuff is Apple, although I’ve done stuff with Android machines like Samsung at work. Does he have a preference?’

‘No, well, I don’t know. I haven’t asked him, it’s a surprise.’

‘Oh. Then my advice would be to try to find out, maybe from a mate or something. People are sometimes attached to a particular make, like me and Apple stuff. What make of phone has he got?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Well that might give you a clue. Tell you what, find out, and we can have a chat next week.’

And I can get the fuck out of here before I get my head kicked in. As we were talking, I’d been trying to head towards the door, but Sandra had remained standing in the middle of the room, as if I wasn’t about to have five levels of shit beaten out of me by a git in a muscle vest.

‘Oh, I might not be here next week, I’m going to my daughter’s, she’s just had a baby …’

Oh fuck no, not the family history, I didn’t have time for this. Needed to be rude.

‘Well whenever you’re next here, then.’

‘But it’s his birthday a week on Saturday.’

Not my problem lady, why don’t you Google Which Tablet? I sighed, got my wallet out and pulled out a business card.

‘Look, here’s my mobile number, text me.’

The look of panic on Sandra’s face told me she didn’t do texting.

‘Or ring me, when you know. I’ll do my best.’

A look of relief flashed across her face.

‘Thank you so much, Matt. I told my husband I’d ask you. That’s really helpful of –’

‘No problem. Sorry, gotta dash.’

I started to jog out of the door, Sandra and I being the last in the room apart from Carrie.

‘Matt?’

No, just leave me the fuck alone, don’t get my teeth kicked in with inanities about Apple versus Samsung, I really don’t love my iPad that much.

With a grimace rather than a smile I turned back, but it wasn’t Sandra who had spoken; she walked past me and out of the door. It was Carrie.

My grimace rearranged itself into something more pleasant, and I raised my eyebrows.

‘I was surprised to see you here.’

I didn’t answer, not really much I could say. I didn’t know if Martin’s display of strength last week had been all his own idea, or whether she had had a say in it. So I shrugged and let her say whatever it was she wanted to say. If it was ‘get lost’, then so be it. But if not, then …

‘Martin can be a dickhead.’

So what was that? An apology?

‘Yeah, well, he and I seem to communicate differently to each other.’

‘You don’t want to piss him off.’

‘No, I don’t want to. But he’s not going to intimidate me, and that might unintentionally piss him off.’

Ha ha, who was I kidding? He intimidated the shit out of me. It sounded all tough and manly, though, and I was beginning to get a bit of a vibe from Carrie. Not necessarily an ‘I want you’ vibe, but something weird, like she wanted me to know something, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, as she wasn’t about to tell me.

‘Seriously Matt. He’s hurt people.’

No shit. With muscles and an attitude like his, it would be surprising if he hadn’t. I had a flash of insight; it was a little late arriving.

‘He hasn’t hurt you has he?’

Carrie dropped her gaze to the floor and shook her head.

‘No, he’d never hurt me.’

‘What, never as long as you do what he says?’

She looked up, a flash of anger in her eyes.

‘He’d never hurt me. I’m sorry he was mean to you last week, maybe his way wasn’t the right way, but maybe you should listen to what he said. Maybe this class isn’t right for you.’

‘Seriously? You can afford to kick people out of your class because your boyfriend takes a dislike to them?’

‘For me. Would you do it for me?’

There was a note of desperation in her voice.

‘What, not come back?’

She nodded, not looking at me. I was getting a sense of being a bit out of my depth, and it scared me.

‘He’s not picking me up this week, but he’ll ask if you were here, and when he finds out you were, he’ll be back next week to make sure you get the message again. I don’t want you to get hurt.’

My man-pride bristled at the implication that I was going to be the one getting hurt, foolish skinny runt that I was.

‘I’m more than capable of holding my own.’

Ha, yes, if we were playing Scrabble I could beat him hands down.

‘You’re not, Matt. Look, you seem like a decent bloke. I’ve asked you nicely, don’t make me go official, make … claims about you. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it.’

What?

I was astounded, unsure if she was serious or just trying her hardest to convince me.

‘Please, can we just do this as, I don’t know, friends? Please?’

She sounded frantic. In the face of all her pleading, I could do nothing more than back down. It really felt like Carrie was in some kind of unhealthy relationship with Martin, and yeah, I felt protective, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it, except she’d just pulled the ‘friends’ card. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

‘OK, then, as a friend of yours, I’ll do this, I’ll stop coming to your class,’

Carrie closed her eyes briefly and nodded.

‘But I want something in return.’

She looked at me warily, waiting.

‘I want to give you my mobile number. Hide it in your phone under pizza delivery or something if you’re worried about him finding it, but I want you to promise that if you ever, ever need a friend, someone to talk to, to help you out of some kind of trouble, if you need anything at all, you’ll call me.’

Carrie looked back at me for a long time, her blue eyes troubled, her brow creased in a frown. She was undecided. Then she decided. What was most telling was that she didn’t laugh and say ‘trouble? What are you talking about?’ or ‘oh, I’ve got loads of friends’ or ‘don’t be daft, that won’t be necessary, he’s a sweetie’ or ‘on your bike mate, you’re pushing your luck’. She just nodded and handed me her phone so I could programme my number into it.

Thursdays after that lacked a certain something, that something being Carrie Mitcham. I changed my course to Italian for Beginners, which was run by middle-aged Roberto, but having missed more than half a term, not having the hots for the instructor, and never having spoken a word of Italian, I found it hard to devote the same passion to it as I had to yoga.

Still, it gave me a focus of sorts, and the time I spent on a couple of conservation weekends weren’t wasted either, as I met Mercy. We bonded over a cup of weak tea during a break from the hacking and digging, and I liked her enough to ask her out. There didn’t seem much point pining over Carrie, who had made herself perfectly clear, and I might as well have some fun.

You always expect people named after virtues to be pretty straight, don’t you? Grace, Charity, Temperance (although I haven’t yet met a Temperance), whatever. The names suggest something worthy from their owners. Mercy was loud, raucous even, had a wicked sense of humour, jet black curly hair and an enormous bosom. Sold to the lecherous skinny guy in the muddy green wellies. We started seeing each other, casually, for the odd coffee, then dinner, a film, a play; we liked enough of the same things for it to be easy and comfortable between us, and enough of different things to have something to banter about.

After a few months, though, I started to notice that she would slow down and gaze into the windows of jewellers when we walked past, and her conversation became littered with references to friends’ weddings, past, present and future.

With a heavy heart, I searched my soul to see if Mercy was ‘the one’, and before my search had got very far, I had to admit that, no, she was a mate, she was great in bed, we were compatible in many ways, not all of which were due to her enormous bosom, but I didn’t love her, and I was going to have to do something about it before … well, just before. Maybe my way of going about things wasn’t thoughtful or considerate, but that was who I was then. I was terrified of being trapped in some kind of unwanted commitment, and I fell back on my default position: all will become clear.

We were out, Merce and I, a picnic on a hill, sun was shining, I was going to call it off. I really wasn’t looking forward to it; this was the longest relationship I’d had since – well ever, in fact, and although I’d let women down gently many times before, it had been after a few weeks, not nearly six months, not after they’d started getting daft ideas about happy ever afters. This wasn’t going to be gentle. Merce was very open with her emotions, and I anticipated either yelling or weeping. Of the two, I would rather have had yelling, but I wasn’t going to have much say in it.

We had just spread out the food and opened the wine (my thinking being that if she had a glass or two, it might soften things a bit for both of us), when my phone rang. It was just a number, no name, so no one from my contacts list, most likely a cold caller. I nearly left it, but last minute procrastination made me give Merce an apologetic grimace, as if it was a call I’d been expecting, and had to answer.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was nothing for a few seconds, and I nearly disconnected, then a faint sniff.

‘Matt?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My turn to be silent, just for a second, while I caught my breath. I stood up, turned my back on Merce and walked far enough away that I would hopefully be out of earshot.

‘Carrie? Is everything OK?’

More sniffing. ‘You said, I promised, if I ever needed a friend, if I was ever in trouble …’

‘What do you need?’

I barely remembered Merce was sitting twenty metres away. My heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing. If he’d hurt her I’d … do my best to kill him. At least bruise his sorry arse in some way.

‘I’m scared.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At home.’

‘Is he there?’

‘No, but he’ll be back soon. He said if I wasn’t here when he gets back …’

I could imagine the kind of threats he’d made.

‘You need to get out of there now. Meet me – shit, I don’t know where you live.’

She told me, and I knew the area fairly well.

‘OK, grab some things, don’t take too long, meet me in Dave’s Café. Do you know it?’

‘Yes, but –’

‘I’ll be there in ten minutes, fifteen max.’

And that was going to involve some fancy driving and the hope that the police didn’t have their speed radars going along the bypass.

‘Don’t move, just sit at the back, or stand by the toilets if there aren’t any seats. Don’t sit in the window. I’ll be right there.’

‘OK.’

‘Go now. Quickly.’

‘Thank you.’

I disconnected and turned round. Shit, I’d completely forgotten about Merce. I couldn’t leave her on the top of a hill, I couldn’t take her with me, and I didn’t have time to pack everything up, drop her home and get to Carrie in my ridiculously tight fifteen minute time slot. The last thing I wanted was for Carrie to think I wasn’t coming. I ran my hands through my hair.

‘Merce –’

‘I heard. Have you got to go?’

‘Friend in need kind of thing. Trouble is –’

‘Yeah, I’m a bit of an inconvenience.’

I heard all the undertones and indeed overtones in her voice. I’d told her a bit about Carrie. If she’d heard any of my conversation, she would know who I’d been talking to.

‘No, never, Merce, it’s just I told her I’d be there in fifteen minutes, but if I take you home first, I’ll be late. Sorry, I just didn’t think.’

‘I’ll be OK here.’

‘What?’

‘I can get a taxi back.’

‘What? No you can’t.’

‘I’d say I’d wait for you to come back, but that might not be for a while, might it. And weren’t you going to dump me anyway?’

‘What?’

‘Come on Matt, you hardly spoke on the way here, I’ve been a bit needy, it’s not like it hasn’t happened to me before. Maybe it’s better this way. Just go, rescue your friend, I’ll be fine.’

‘Merce, I –’

‘Go on. Thanks, Matt, it’s been a great few months. Sorry you were a bastard in the end.’

Oh shit. I hope she didn’t know about –

‘I know you’ve slept with someone else.’

Oh shit. I hope it’s only –

‘Or rather sometwo else.’

Oh shit. I fully deserved the Bastard Crown she had just metaphorically awarded me.

‘Piss off, then.’

I didn’t have any answer for her, or any time to talk about it, and the clock was ticking, so I turned and ran back to my car, further proving what a bastard I really was. It occurred to me as I was half way to the café that I should have at least offered to pay for the taxi. Even confirmed bastards would think I was a bastard.